Rolling Stone's August cover spread features a beady-eyed, young man with thick brown hair and a complacent gaze, eying the camera like a rock star or teen idol. But this figure is no admirable artist, musician, actor or politician, one of the subjects commonly featured in Rolling Stone; it is Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the remaining living member of the suspected Boston Bomber duo. Tsarnaev's picture is nonchalantly surrounded by previews for features about two of the hottest musicians of the summer, Robin Thicke and Jay-Z, as well as a story about climate change.
Unsurprisingly, the cover has sparked scathing controversy almost over night. Rolling Stone covers diverse subjects from music and movies to politics and the news. But the issue with August's issue is not about the content Rolling Stone has chosen to cover, but rather how that content is portrayed. It is one thing to glamorize pop culture, but is another thing entirely to glamorize terrorism. The decision to glamorize Tsarnaev extends far beyond sensationalism — the selection was clearly intended to play at our most complex emotions and ask us to question our beliefs, but was it not also meant to offend?
The blasts that went off at the 2013 Boston Marathon, killing three people and wounding more the 200, reverberated around the nation. This act of terror was the first of its kind on American soil since the rattling events of September 11, 2011. In wake of the destruction, Americans were left without answers. The question on everyone's mind was what kind of a monster could be capable of such terror. Lo and behold, we look into the eyes of the poised face on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Below the cover photo, a preview for the article reads, "How a popular, promising student was failed by his family, fell into radical Islam, and became a monster."
Janet Reitman, the journalist who wrote the article on Tsarnaev, spent two months interviewing the subjects friends and family. Throughout the feature, Reitman looks into "Jahar's World," offering five revelations about the suspect's life, including his "troubled home life," his family that had disintegrated leaving his older sisters estranged; how he "took religion seriously," and how it was his older brother, Tamerlan, "who was becoming increasingly devout and judgmental of all non-Muslims," who was Jahar's sole remaining relative in Boston.
Reitman seems never to attribute fault to the perpetrator himself; rather, she blames the suspected bomber's horrific actions on those around him — his troubled family life and influence of his older, radical brother.
According to Business Insider, this is not the first time the magazine industry has made America's villains into icons; a TIME cover featured Charles Manson in 1969, though his photo was hardly as flattering and innocent as that of Jahar. Despite that Jahar is a young boy with a controversial upbringing, he is a suspected terrorist allegedly responsible for one of the most horrific acts of terror in recent American history. How would this portrayal of Jahar differ from Rolling Stone publishing a portrait of Osama Bin Laden looking like an innocent emblem of pop culture?
Many seemed to find no difference at all; in fact, the preview of the article ignited a swift and overwhelmingly scathing reaction, especially on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. CNN reported that after the magazine's Facebook posted an image of the cover on Tuesday evening, it "received more than 4,700 comments by early Wednesday morning." Words such as "tasteless," "sickening" and "disgusting" have been common responses, while many called the cover a "disgusting choice," "un-American" and they denounced the popular magazine for "making martyrs" out of murderers. Even many of Rolling Stones perennial fans have pledged to revoke their support for the magazine.
Others lashed out at Rolling Stone for likening Jahar to American pop icons; one Twitter post declared that the "new Rolling Stone cover turns the Boston bomber into Jim Morrison."
While the response to the cover spread was overwhelmingly negative, it also ignited input from the "Free Jahar" movement, CNN reported. "#BoycottRollingStone calling Djahar a monster and stirring the pot even more shame on you! Innocent until PROVEN guilty," tweeted @Jahars_Tsarnaev," one tweet read. The flattering, innocent portrayal of Jahar served just the purpose that the Free Jahar fans were seeking.
While Rolling Stone has every right to publish the photos and articles it wishes, the manner in which the magazine has chosen to portray Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on its cover is not only insensitive but also contradictory to the values that the magazine should stand for. It should be an honor to earn a place on the cover of such a prominent magazine, however, this issue of Rolling Stone has reversed that goal entirely. Whether intentionally or not, Rolling Stone has chosen to glamorize the suspected enabler of one of the most atrocious acts in recent American history.