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opinion | jesse singal

Why the Rolling Stone photo of Tsarnaev is so disturbing

istockphoto/the boston globe/globe staff illustration

Boston is not happy with Rolling Stone magazine. Its decision to illustrate Jane Reitman’s cover story about alleged Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev with a photo of the handsome teenager looking like a brooding rock star was met with a furious backlash.

“They’re glorifying him” is the most common complaint, but in reality this is shorthand for a different sort of discomfort. After all, no one is sincerely claiming that Rolling Stone is publishing pro-Tsarnaev propaganda. Rather, this is about our desire to have our enemies be supervillains motivated by nothing more complicated than evil or seething hatred. It’s an understandable tendency, and one that comes naturally as a result of human psychology — but it’s quite dangerous given the world we live in.

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The human brain is built for a groupish existence. A quick ability to distinguish “us” from “them” — and to treat this distinction as profoundly important — is part of the reason we’ve been so successful as a species, part of the reason we’ve been able to build such huge, sophisticated societies. But it’s also maladaptive, at times, in a modern context. We’ve moved mostly past the age of conventional warfare, of red uniforms versus blue uniforms. Diversity and multiculturalism are here to stay: We can no longer fairly or accurately carve up the world with quick, superficial glances.

This helps explain both the furious reaction to the cover and why this reaction bodes poorly for our anti-terror efforts. We fear the image not because it glorifies Tsarnaev, but because he looks like any other teen trying to strike a cool, aloof pose for a photograph. He appears too normal to have done a horrible thing.

But we don’t want Tsarnaev to be normal. We want him to either be a pawn of abject evil, or to embody abject evil himself. If he were a psychopath, or if he had been seduced by a sprawling international conspiracy, we’d be able to guide ourselves through the bombing’s painful aftermath with a neat, clean story line: us versus them, good versus evil. When a State Police sergeant released photos of Tsarnaev’s apprehension to Boston Magazine on Thursday, it helped sate this need. The images of a bloody Tsarnaev leaving the boat in Watertown offer a rebuttal, an easy way to resolve our cognitive dissonance: No, he isn’t an otherwise normal kid who did a horrible thing. He’s evil!

Those photos might bring us some temporary comfort, but reality is messier. Tsarnaev, the Rolling Stone article notes, was in almost every sense a popular and well-adjusted teenager. It was only after experiencing great family turmoil — some of it centering around his alleged coconspirator and fundamentalist bully older brother Tamerlan — that he apparently convinced himself to maim and kill innocent people.

Given the horror of what Tsarnaev allegedly did, all this might seem like a semantic argument better suited for a philosophy class than mainstream debate. But it matters. When we inflate our enemies to outsize proportions, when we decide that they reside in a category that isn’t fully human, that’s when our worst impulses drive us toward terrible policies. Moreover, the moment we strip Tsarnaev of his humanity, we absolve ourselves of the responsibility of finding an explanation. He was evil — what’s to explain?

Terrorism experts say that this simply isn’t how the world works: Terrorism’s very existence depends on the fact that young men who might otherwise be gentle, productive citizens can, under certain circumstances, be motivated to commit horrendous acts.

If there are lessons to be drawn from the Marathon bombing, they will reveal themselves reluctantly, and only after diligent digging — the sort of digging Reitman did for her article. It certainly feels satisfying to call Tsarnaev a monster (which, tellingly, is how Rolling Stone describes him on the cover in order to sell the more nuanced story within), but it won’t get us anywhere if we hope to prevent the next Dzhokhar Tsarnaev from exploding onto the scene in a moment of horrific bloodshed.

Jesse Singal has a Master’s in Public Affairs from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and is a regular contributor to the Globe. He can be reached at jesse.r.singal@gmail.com.
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