YOU KNOW, IF IT hadn’t been for that dumb song by Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show, people might not see it as such a big deal. I’m fascinated by the amount of controversy surrounding the use of a picture of Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the cover of the latest issue of Rolling Stone.
Interestingly, most objections seem to center one issue: that he looks glamorous in the photo (a photo he took himself that has appeared everywhere, including on page 1 of the New York Times and in the Boston Globe). He looks too much like a rock star.
Look, I know this is tough for some people, especially for those closest to the horrible events in Boston. I get it. I’m from back there. I went to Jahar Tsarnaev’s school. (It’s not beige, by the way. It’s gray.) To those who think trying to understand the bombing suspect glorifies him and dishonors the victims, I would encourage you to question how that is true, and to consider changing your mind. Another question that may or may not apply: Is hatred and anger, however justified it might seem, serving you or anyone?
One of the stores supporting a boycott of the magazine said they “cannot support actions that serve to glorify the evil actions of anyone,” to which I would ask, “Who’s glorifying anyone’s evil actions?” Were Adam Lanza or James Holmes being glorified when they made the covers of national magazines? How about Columbine shooters Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris?
That was different. Readers wanted to find out what went wrong with those white boys-next-door. Sure, Tsarnaev is “white”—literally Caucasian, even. But being foreign-born and Muslim makes him an outsider. “Oh, he’s one of them,” people seem to be saying. “Of course. No sense digging any deeper.”
To see this young man as a human being, much less try and figure out what went so horribly wrong, is just too much to ask, apparently. But it seems to me that is a necessary first step toward preventing similar future tragedies. The Rolling Stone article, which can be read here, attempts to do just that.
NPR spoke to David J. Leonard, a professor specializing in race studies at Washington State University, in an excellent article titled “Rolling Stone’s Tsarnaev Cover: What’s Stirring Such Passion?” He says,
The fact that the images of these [other] individuals did not prompt outrage reflects a willingness to see a level of innocence and how race, class, and religion all plays out here. This shows how many readers don’t see Tsarnaev as white; he is different in their imagination from Lanza, Holmes, Kleebold and others.
As we saw in the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer this week, a whole lot rides on who gets perceived as other in this world.
But to get back to that objectionable cover photo, can I just say out loud what half of the world is thinking? Jahar Tsarnaev is hot. He is a good-looking young man—rock star material; “glam” according to USA Today—and in all seriousness, that is a part of people’s strong reaction here. He’s not only human, he’s attractive.
Mark Joseph Stern, writing for Slate, puts it well:
“What did we expect to see in Tsarnaev? What did we hope to see?” The answer, most likely, is a monster, a brutish dolt with outward manifestations of evil. What we get instead, however, is the most alarming sight of all: a boy who looks like someone we might know.
An editorial in the Boston Globe says “Tsarnaev looks less like a murderer than a shaggy troubadour in what appears to be an Armani Exchange T-shirt.” The editorial is supportive of the Rolling Stone article, if not the choice of cover photo; but I disagree that the photo is ill-chosen. The photo is one Tsarnaev took of himself shortly before the bombing; in it he looks innocent and sexy and stoned.
“This could be your daughter’s boyfriend at college,” the cover seems to say. Isn’t that kind of the point? The photo, like the article, challenges us to question how we view people. As the editors of Rolling Stone point out,
The fact that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is young, and in the same age group as many of our readers, makes it all the more important for us to examine the complexities of this issue and gain a more complete understanding of how a tragedy like this happens.
It seems like a good way to honor the victims of the Boston tragedy might be to try and figure this out. What happened to this young guy? Isn’t that a question worth trying to answer?