Try as I might, I can’t summon outrage over this Rolling Stone cover.
That shot of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as handsome stoner doesn’t make me any less angry than I already was about the crimes of which he’s accused. It doesn’t make him any more sympathetic a figure. It doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know — especially here, where we know it painfully well.
And what we already know is that this 19-year-old, who looks just like any other 19-year-old, is beyond complicated, the heinous crimes he allegedly admitted to utterly confounding.
People who are mad about this cover say it glamorizes Tsarnaev, that it places him among the Justin Biebers and Taylor Swifts of the world, those objects of dreamy tween fantasies. Staring out from that cover through perfectly messed hair, Tsarnaev exudes studied alterna-kid. It’s a very Rolling Stone image. But it’s accompanied by a very un-Rolling Stone coverline: “THE BOMBER: How a Popular, Promising Student Was Failed by His Family, Fell into Radical Islam, and Became a Monster.” That’s pretty unequivocal, and does something newspapers like this one have taken great pains to avoid: It convicts him.
I can see how any image of Tsarnaev could be painful to the victims and those who love them. And how one that makes him look like a normal kid, and not a sinister fiend, might be even more painful. But the level of outrage this has provoked seems way out of proportion to what is, at worst, an insensitive editorial call. The governor and the mayor have issued strongly worded statements of disapproval. A long list of local stores have simply refused to carry the issue, as if none of us is strong enough to see it, or to decide for ourselves whether to buy it.
As much as I would like to believe in the might of the modern magazine, that gives Rolling Stone way too much power. After all, it’s not like this cover image, which most of us have seen before, is going to change anybody’s mind about Tsarnaev and what he did. Neither would one that put horns on him. Only a pinhead would see the cover and think, ‘Oh, I thought this guy was a murderous monster, but since he looks so hot right here, I guess he’s OK.’ We know these pinheads exist, of course. Some of them were at the federal courthouse to protest Tsarnaev’s arraignment last week. But there’s no danger of any sane person joining them because of Rolling Stone.
Especially not here. We’ve been paying closer attention than that. The younger Tsarnaev has always been the more confounding of the brothers who allegedly killed four and injured more than 260. The older, Tamerlan, was the immigrant who never fit in, the possibly murderous hood who felt rejected by this country, and who rejected it in return, growing increasingly radicalized until he fit our classic image of a terrorist.
Dzhokhar has been a much harder case, precisely because, until the moment of the bombing, he was, to just about everybody who knew him, that kid on the cover of the magazine. He was popular and laid back, successful in sports, cool. It seemed unfathomable that he could have done something so unthinkable, even if his brother did take the lead. That is why so many of his friends did not believe their own eyes when pictures of the bombers were finally released a few days after the bombings.
His Friday night capture just deepened the incongruity. The villain who had wrought historic death and devastation, who had frozen an entire region for 24 hours, was revealed as not some hardened, maniacal criminal, but a kid. The picture of his arrest showed him on his back, cuffed and bloody, his shirt lifted to reveal a pale, painfully thin teenager. More pathetic than frightening, until you recall what police say he did, and even confessed to in a bloody scrawl inside the boat where he was hiding. “I can’t stand to see such evil go unpunished . . . We Muslims are one body, you hurt one, you hurt us all . . . [Expletive] America.”
To see him as that skinny kid on the ground, or on the Rolling Stone cover, is to confront the possibility that good-looking kids who seem totally normal, good students who give off no sign of trouble at all, can become monsters, too.
If we are strong enough to survive these attacks, surely we’re strong enough to talk about how that is humanly possible.
We are, and we should.