Tsarnaev on the Cover

The infamous Rolling Stone cover, featuring terror suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

The infamous Rolling Stone cover, featuring terror suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

“The vitriol and closed-mindedness of the Web response to the Rolling Stone cover—before anyone had the chance to read the article itself—is an example of two of the ugly public outcomes of terrorism: hostility toward free expression, and to the collection and examination of factual evidence; and a kind of culture-wide self-censorship encouraged by tragedy…” The Inconvenient Image Of Dzhokar Tsarnaev Ian Crouch, The New Yorker, July 17, 2013.

I found myself arguing this point a bit with Jay Novak, a very good former business editor with whom I worked in the past, and who now is managing director at Aethlon Capitol. I won’t copy Jay’s words here because I don’t have permission, but his point was essentially that one does not need to read the story to judge the cover. Fair enough.

I wrote back explaining why I think the firestorm of protest over the cover of the Boston bombing suspect is misplaced, why I think Rolling Stone has committed an important act of journalism by publishing this image as it has. It’s perfectly fair game for me to quote myself on that subject, so here is the little mini-essay I wrote in response to Jay.

Judge it any way you want, Jay. I wholeheartedly accept the point of that quote.

I believe that journalism’s job is not always to massage the mass’ comfort zone. Provocation is, or should be, part of the job when called for.

Some people will see this as Rolling Stone trying to make a rock star out of Tsarnaev. But Rolling Stone didn’t fashion his hairstyle. Rolling Stone didn’t get him high so that his expression would be particularly dreamy. Rolling Stone didn’t even snap the photo. The fact that he looks like a sleepy, almost sensuous rock star is part of the fascination, repulsion and provocation of the piece, and of Tsanaev himself.

This guy doesn’t fit the profile of a terrorist. He looks like four out of every 20 people that I see in my local coffee shop, people I feel perfectly comfortable around, who give me no cause for pause or fear. That is deeply unsettling.

That is one reason why this cover is every bit as landmark an image as Rolling Stone’s Charles Manson cover 40 years ago, for different reasons. That one showed a monster who walked among the peace-and-love crowd who actually looked like a monster. This one shows us a monster who walked among regular folks on the street who does not look that way. He could be the man John Lennon was describing when he said “he’s got to be good-looking ‘cuz he’s so hard to see.”

That is far more disturbing to people—and much more difficult for them to mentally process—than the much more easy-to-access, kneejerk reaction that “Rolling Stone is glorifying a terrorist.”

I think that is what lies behind the storm of protest against Rolling Stone, a chorus that even uber-liberal Lawrence O’Donnell chose to join. Never mind that the word “monster” is right there on the cover.

This is not a cover that glorifies this man. It is a cover that exposes the banality of evil. Therefore, I think this particular expression is not only justified, it is urgently important.


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