The Dzhokhar Tsarnaev Rolling Stone Cover Picture is Not Only Important, It's Necessary


Following the controversial Rolling Stone magazine cover featuring Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the person accused of setting off two bombs at the Boston Marathon, social and mass media exploded in condemnation. People wondered how someone suspected of terrorism could be featured on the front of a widely distributed magazine, and likened his picture to an old Jim Morrison cover, saying Rolling Stone was trying to turn Tsarnaev into a rock star.

Boston punk rock band Dropkick Murphys tweeted that Rolling Stone should be ashamed, and should have put a picture of one of the victims rather than this "loser scum bag." CVS and Walgreens both stated that they will not be selling this issue of the magazine in their stores. All of these responses are rather predictable, but maybe not the most thought out.

As John Judis of The New Republic puts it, the cover picture depicts Tsarnaev as exotically attractive, and its corresponding article attempts to reconcile a high school student who was thought of as exotically attractive with the criminal who murdered three people, injured hundreds, and caused immeasurable mayhem. And that is precisely the problem.

Americans do not want to see this terrorist as exotically attractive. They do not want to see him as a human at all. It is much easier and more comfortable to remove any humanity from Tsarnaev, and paint him as a one-dimensional monster. Maybe that's what he turned into, but it is undeniable that he was the product of 19 years of individual experience through his family and friends, just like any other human. This cover picture, and even more so the article, depicting him as a normal, pot-smoking, punk of a kid challenges our desire to dehumanize him, and this is why it spurred such a vitriolic response.

Unfortunately, while our tendency to dehumanize criminals is not limited to high-profile terrorism, it does seem to be recurring pattern. Censoring criminals' backstories and refusing to see social causes for crime probably helps contribute to America's outrageous incarceration rates and despicable prison conditions. However, it is when the perpetrator is labeled as a terrorist, or even more so an Islamic terrorist, that all potential for understanding vanishes. This is best exemplified by former President George W. Bush's claim, following the September 11 attacks, that they attacked us because they "hate our freedoms," a claim as laughable as it is misinformed.

Since then, actual efforts to explain acts of terrorism have been met with disgust and censure. The problem comes when critics conflate efforts to explain with attempts to justify. No one worth listening to is trying to justify or glorify Tsarnaev's bombings, or the 9/11 attacks. But is it not worth examining why these people were driven to such horrendous deeds? In an example provided by former CIA agent Barry Eisler, if you were to walk down the street and spit in the face of everyone that passed you by, it is conceivable to assume people's responses would range from ignoring you to potentially shooting you with a gun. While spitting in someone's face by no means justifies the latter response, there is a clear causal relationship.

It is precisely this type of examination that Americans seem so reluctant to engage in. While it is likely true that there is nothing different society could have done to stop Tsarnaev from turning into a monster, it is at least worth examining the social pressures that caused him to do so. If we bury our heads in the sand, and ignore the most troubled amongst us, we have no hope of ever foreseeing the next Tsarnaev, or James Holmes, or Seung-Hui Cho, or stopping the epidemic of gun violence that plagues people other than middle class whites.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said it best, naturally: "Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence, when it helps us to see the enemy's point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition."