Friday, July 19, 2013

Thoughts on the Rolling Stone cover with alleged Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

By Michael J.W. Stickings

Oh, there's just so much righteous outrage over Rolling Stone's supposedly controversial, supposedly inappropriate cover photo of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. How dare they? It glamorized him, it glorifies him, it disrespects the victims, it's so very, very wrong, the shame!


Here are some comments before I turn to Frank Rich:

First, this is a "selfie," a photo the young Tsarnaev took of himself. Yes, he looks a bit like a rock star, but that's the point of the article. This isn't the sort of guy you'd expect to find at an al Qaeda training camp in some remote part of some hellish part of the world. He seemed "normal," and most of those around him, most of those close to him, talk of how wonderful he was, of how promising his life was, how he seemed to be your basic American kid.

But that's too complicated, apparently. People want to vilify him, to find him evil incarnate, refusing to acknowledge that there was, and likely still is, much more to him than that, that even if he's guilty, as he likely is, it's not as easy as saying he's a good-for-nothing killer.

This troubled me at the time and troubles me even more now. Did he do horrendous things? Does he have innocent blood on his hands? Yes, it appears so. But why did he do those things? Why did he -- this promising young man -- follow his brother into an act of terrorism and the additional bloodshed that followed? This outstanding article by Janet Reitman tries to answer that question, or at least tries to get us closer to the person, to see him for what he was, and is, the human being instead of the evil psychopath who is held up in the media and by those who have no interest in understanding anything.

Second, even if he looks good on the cover, the magazine is pretty clear in its assessment of him. He's called "The Bomber" and "a Monster" right on the cover. So much for the presumption of innocence. Those freaking out about how he looks might want to read the cover, not to mention the article itself. But no, they prefer to traffic in the politics of outrage and the good-versus-evil simplicities of the war on terror.

Third, speaking of the politics of outrage, one expects such mindless nonsense from conservatives, who for partisan purposes but also because they're morons freak out over the tiniest slight, perceived or otherwise, but the outrage, faux or otherwise, has been coming from others as well, including Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, and now CVS, the large pharmacy chain that operates in Massachusetts, is refusing to stock this edition of the magazine.

How incredibly stupid, this whole outrage. CVS is obviously bowing to pressure, as companies often do when they sense that their bottom line might be affected, and it's as cowardly as usual. A question is whether political leaders like Patrick and Menino are genuinely outraged or whether they're doing this for political purposes as well. If the latter, they're as shamelessly cynical as those on the right. If the former, they're just stupid. It's particularly disappointing coming from Patrick, a rising star in the Democratic Party who should know better -- and who should do better as well.

Fourth, while I sympathize with the people of Boston, not least because I used to live there, enough with the whole oversensitivity thing. What Boston went through is what a lot of places in the world go through. What happened is awful, yes, but does that mean no one can say anything "controversial" without everyone freaking out about how it's so insensitive to the victims and how the city has been through so much? Even if the Rolling Stone cover were inappropriate, so what? Can Boston just not handle that? Are the people of Boston, including its leaders, so thin-skinned that anything short of vilifying the Tsarnaevs as Osama-like evildoers hurts their feelings and requires the sort of cowardly response we've seen to the cover photo? Seriously, grow the fuck up, everyone.

Fifth, even if some might look longingly at the photo, thinking that Dzhokhar is some glamorously glorious figure, so what? The only people who might do that are terrorists, would-be or otherwise, and Dzhokhar's small cadre of crazy fans. But are terrorists really taking their cues from the cover of Rolling Stone, not least when that same cover says this guy's a monster? Is anyone really looking at that photo and thinking, "Yeah, that dude's so cool, I'm gonna do what he did?" Please. I think most people know what happened to him, and it's not exactly a desirable path to take to celebrity status. What's more, it's not like Rolling Stone just pulled this photo out of nowhere. It was public before, and whatever power it has doesn't require a magazine cover.

Anyway, here's Frank Rich, who had a very good take on the whole madness, making some of the same points I make here, yesterday:

Even by the standards of phony post-9/11 outrages, this one is idiotic... What are these idiots thinking? That because Tsarnaev looked like a cute dude and "a celebrity" (which he is, by the way, as is George Zimmerman), impressionable American kids will enlist with Al Qaeda? That publishing an article about the psyche of a mass murderer somehow dishonors those he murdered? The whole point of the piece is that Tsarnaev didn't look or act like a terrorist in an FBI mug shot but was a "golden person" to those who knew him — "seamless, like a billiard ball," in the words of his high-school wrestling coach in Cambridge. That's how he got away with it even in our overweening surveillance state. How he fooled everyone is one thing of value we might learn if anything remotely positive is to come out of his and his brother's horrific crime. No piece of journalism has shed more light on that question to date than this article by Janet Reitman, who was also the fearless author of the first major book to crack open Scientology. The more readers who are tempted to dig into this exemplary exercise in long-form journalism (11,000 words) by the Rolling Stone cover, the better. Those pandering politicians and merchants who are encouraging readers to shun the magazine or barring it altogether — Boston mayor Thomas Menino, Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, the pharmacy chain CVS — are, as they used to say in the Bush era, on the side of the terrorists.

Even if it were an inappropriate cover, shouldn't people -- shouldn't Boston? shouldn't America? -- have the fortitude to deal with it without all the silly (faux) outrage, without calling for a boycott, without refusing to sell the magazine?

But it's not inappropriate. It's an excellent image to use given the purpose of the article, given that people should see this guy for what he was in his full complexity, not merely as some evildoer as he is made out to be in the media and by the mindless morons mostly on the right but generally across the spectrum. (Indeed, if there's anything wrong with it, it's that the magazine labels him a monster and thereby denies him the presumption of innocence to which he is entitled.)

Rich has it right. This one's truly and utterly idiotic.

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  • I've got to agree with many of your points so here are mine, some of which might overlap:

    1) Glorifying Tsarnaev the cover does not. The pic used is completely unaltered/undoctored, just an as is. How is that glamorizing? Besides, Rolling Stone in the past has had Charles Manson on the cover, a guy that lets just say is not known primarily for his folk music. Time Magazine had bin Laden on the cover shortly after 9/11, not to mention Hitler and Stalin in the past. Both Men of the Year. Those people who accuse RS of glamorizing Tsarnaev are only objecting so loudly because they see themselves in the photo, and that scares them.

    2) The moment of capture pics of Tsarnaev were recently leaked as a result of this cover. The Boston PD officer who leaked them claimed outrage over the cover, and said RS should have found a way to honor the victims of the attacks instead. That's all well and good, honoring the victims is a very important aspect of the emotional healing process that needs to take place following tragic incidents like these. The problem though, is if we keep our focus exclusively on the victims, WE DON'T ACTUALLY LEARN ANYTHING. We've already had probably hundreds of magazine covers, CNN specials, not to mention partially censored charity concerts (as per Dane Cook's request), which is fine. But eventually someone's gotta sit down and do the nitty gritty of figuring out why the terrorists did this in the first place.

    3) Ever since 9/11 a common conservative mantra has been, "don't let the terrorists win." Go shopping in Manhattan, see a Broadway play we were all told. Well, if we proactively engage in self-censorship right after every terrorist incident or civilian massacre, isn't that letting the terrorists win?

    4) This makes me sad to admit, but all in all, The new Rolling Stone cover has shown that many Americans are completely incapable of engaging in a nuanced discussion of terrorism and it's causes. And because of this pervasive stubbornness and elementary thinking, instead of taking 2 steps forward whenever something like this happens, we're always stuck taking one step back because we have to take the time to explain on behalf of the others.

    By Anonymous Mark, at 7:34 PM  

  • Well said, Mark.

    By Blogger Capt. Fogg, at 10:30 AM  

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