Rolling Stone Wasn't Glamorizing Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, It Was Humanizing Him


In case you haven't heard, Rolling Stone has made quite a stir by featuring Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of the two men responsible for the Boston Marathon bombings back in April, on the cover of its latest issue. A grainy Tsarnaev, critics say, is made to look like a model, donning a similar stoic pose to the musicians and actors that the magazine usually showcases.

In case you also haven't heard, there was a story written to accompany that cover. If you peeled it back, looked past the bedlam, and read the piece on Tsarnaev's winding journey from U.S. immigrant to everyday teenager to captured terrorist, you'd find that the magazine had no intention of glamorizing him. This was about humanization, something that's becoming increasingly lost in today's news media.

Tsarnaev, in the three months that he's become a household name, is pigeonholed into the same image as any other notorious terrorist in the U.S. And that's not unwarranted — what he and brother Tamerlan orchestrated in Boston remains one of the most serious acts of terror that this country's seen in the past decade. But it's still significant to remember that. Seeing Tsarnaev in a mugshot is now the only palatable sight of him; thinking of Tsarnaev brandishing a weapon or preaching Islamic fundamentalism is seemingly the only way to understand him. Tsarnaev's story, his facade as a standard American teen with a promising future, becomes uncomfortable because it is shrouded in innocence.

Back when he was not explicitly fundamentalist, back when he exemplified standard coy and charming behavior for a high schooler, Tsarnaev was a human being. It's an uncomfortable story to process. After all, it's significantly easier to look at Tsarnaev as what the media portrays as a terrorist and what the cover calls "a monster." It's more interesting to understand how he became that monster.

The feature, which spans thousands of words and nearly 10 pages in the magazine, dives into the turbulent background Tsarnaev was raised in, from exposure to war in Chechnya as an infant to living in political asylum in Cambridge to feeling abandoned in college as his parents relocated halfway around the world. The story paints Tsarnaev not as a redeemable person in the present, but, by accounts of friends, families and his wrestling coach, a good kid in the past who was dangerously malleable in a volatile home environment. It makes the impetus behind the Boston bombings clearer, and it gives the attacks an extra layer of needed context.

How can a country combat terrorism without understanding how a terrorist develops? How can readers follow one of the biggest tragedies of the decade without knowing the journey and personal tribulation that inspired it? Understanding that Tsarnaev was once a promising American teen is tough to swallow. It begs questions that you're reluctant to answer in national emergency; it makes you relate to the criminal who's face is blasted over every cable network in the nation. And it makes for powerful journalism and powerful processing of what happened in Boston.

That cover isn't meant to make Tsarnaev look sexy, pensive or even innocent. It's simply meant to remind you that he was once a human being, a human being who's transformation to a monster means something. Understanding Boston was tough enough. Corroborating that Boston occurred because of someone you probably would have enjoyed hanging out with three years ago is much tougher.

And it's much more important to remember.