Rolling Stone Tsarnaev

♪ How does it feel?

How does it feel?

To be without a home

Like a complete unknown

Like a rolling stone ♪

Echoing the renowned ballad by Bob Dylan, this is the question that so many were asking of Rolling Stone after its decision to run a cover photo of the alleged Boston Bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. People were particularly outraged because Tsarnaev looked like any other good-looking teenager: mysterious, genuine, innocent. He could have passed for your buddy from high school, that kid you saw on the street today, a member of an up and coming boy band. That’s the point.

If we are to ever fully understand what drives people to commit acts of terror, then we have to admit that Tsarnaev fits the profile of thousands of American teens. Could Rolling Stone have chosen a photo that was, for lack of a better way to put it, less-seductive? Well obviously. But their main aim is to sell magazines: stirring up controversy is the name of the game and Rolling Stone knows the game as well as any. But furthermore, Rolling Stone is not committing some kind of deplorable sin by putting up a flattering selfie of Tsarnaev. If the purpose of the article is to ploy into how a kid turned from a ‘guy’s guy’ into a ‘monster’, the chosen photo is perfectly reasonable.

What’s the problem? That we don’t want to admit that a terrorist can look good. That we don’t want to admit that he can be a good wrestler, a good student, or a good friend. That he didn’t seem to have radical views, that he didn’t stand out as anti-American in a city of Cambridge that is as anti-American as any in our country. That, just maybe, his family’s financial problems and struggles to adjust to an American way of life may have led to copious amounts of suppressed anger towards a country that promises prosperity yet failed to deliver. That Bob Dylan’s chorus actually applies to the Boston Bomber.

That’s exactly the problem—we don’t want to admit that these ‘monsters’ actually just blend in as regular people. People that we could hardly notice, or even befriend, or even love. Instead, as a nation we put up a collective shield: “Shame on you Rolling Stone for glorifying a mass murderer. How about featuring a cover of the survivors and first respondents? #BostonStrong” would probably pass as the standard tweet on Wednesday. Well, to begin with, a cover photo honoring the brave men and women who were involved in the tragedy would have had absolutely nothing to do with the written article. And, as for glorification, if making the cover of a magazine is synonymous with glory for so many then our nation direly needs a reality check. If publicity is glorification, then don’t you think Tsarnaev achieved his goal months ago when he dominated the national press?

If everyone actually took the time to read the article, it featured sound journalism and provided insight into the life of someone we still do not know very much about. It discussed everything from the domineering personality of his very religious older brother Tamerlan to his family’s secretive nature and impoverishment to his years of disillusionment at University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. The article was not pardoning Tsarnaev—though even if it did, Rolling Stone is not under some unwritten obligation to be patriotic. It merely sought to explain what prompted Tsarnaev’s actions: an explanation that still has several holes. What we do know is that a seemingly harmless stoner began to read a substantive amount of radical texts, joined several radical communities, and spent an ample amount of time with a radical brother prior to the bombings.  

The troubling aspect of everyone’s outrage to the cover is that so many of these same people do not even proceed to read the article. If one reads the article, and still disapproves of the cover, that is perfectly reasonable. But when we literally ‘judge a book [article] by its cover’, we will never actually learn from our nation’s darkest hours. The survivors and first respondents deserve all the praise in the world, but the difficult questions also need to be addressed. Like, what prompts domestic terrorism? What can we do prevent it?

And, hauntingly, Tsarnaev’s portrait is so, so befitting of these questions. They’re complex. He’s complex. Behind his gaze, we can only speculate as to what is going on in his mind. As to why he hated a country that gave his family a ticket out of war-stricken Chechnya. As to why he eventually followed his older brother who he specifically told friends that you would not want to meet in person. We do not have all the answers, and Rolling Stone obviously did not land an exclusive interview with Tsarnaev’s subconscious so the best they could do was provide insight from those close to Dzhokhar. And what we learned, is that almost nothing made Tsarnaev any different from teens who play sports, smoke weed, go to college, and casually denounce American foreign policy in the Middle East like any other 20-year old liberal would. The only major characteristics of his life that distinguished him from most others was that he was a first-generation American growing up in a household that was far more radical than anyone around him realized.

And we hate to admit that. That almost nothing made him a ‘monster’, and the aspects of his life that led him to terrorism, happening predominantly on his own computer in his own home, are impossible for the public’s influence to prevent. As scary as the recent NSA revelations are, these are the very cases that pro-surveillance advocates will sight as reason for enhanced supervision of what and why we’re searching for the things we do. Articles like the one in Rolling Stone have the potential to create national discussions on important issues, but instead all that is talked about is the controversy of the cover. Shocking that a magazine prints a thought-provoking picture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in a piece that intended to be a thought-provoking article about Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. And ultimately, Rolling Stone won as everyone’s talking about them—sadly the focus is on a picture everyone’s already seen on the TV rather than a pretty decent piece of journalism.