June 21, 2018
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An image that outrages, informs


Rolling Stone magazine evoked a steady drumbeat of criticism this week with the release of its latest edition. The cover features a photographed self-portrait of Dzhokar Tsarnaev that the 19-year-old Boston Marathon bombing suspect had posted online.

The photo shows a young man with shaggy hair, a light moustache and goatee, and big eyes looking squarely at the camera. On the cover of Rolling Stone, the suspected bomber’s photo occupies a historically coveted space that’s featured stars like Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Adele and Taylor Swift. Critics said the Tsarnaev photo is eerily similar to Rolling Stone cover photos of Bob Dylan and Jim Morrison.

In 1973, the same spot was occupied by Charles Manson as the nation came to grips and sought to understand the violence wrought by Manson’s “Family.”

As a nation, we’ve been devastated by the gruesome crime that took place in Boston April 15, 2013. But as we recover, we want to know more. Understanding is part of our recovery. And Tsarnaev’s photo is part of the story we need to understand.

On Rolling Stone’s Facebook page this week, readers tore the magazine apart for glamorizing a suspected terrorist as it would a rock star, for shamelessly seeking attention and for stooping to “a pathetic form of journalistic prostitution.”

The cover “rewards a terrorist with celebrity treatment,” Boston Mayor Thomas Menino wrote to Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner.

This isn’t the first time we ’ve seen this photo. But as New Yorker writer Ian Crouch put it, the reaction to Rolling Stone’s placement of it is a reminder that the “magazine cover retains its unique cultural power — to amuse, to inform, to agitate, or … to enrage.”

But why?

Is it that the Tsarnaev photo in such a prominent position forces us to confront the image of a teenager we all could imagine knowing? A classmate? A neighbor? A child? A brother?

The outrage is directed at the photo — and not the story connected to it — for a reason. The story associated with the photo, in the words of Rolling Stone’s editors, delivers “a riveting and heartbreaking account of how a charming kid with a bright future became a monster.” And three months after a devastating act of terrorism killed three and injured hundreds on our home soil, we’re understandably curious to know what drove a seemingly normal college student to become a suspected terrorist.

But, the argument goes, the cover photo glamorizes Tsarnaev. It gives a killer rock star treatment.

Is that our reaction, though, because we’re afraid to see an alleged bomber look so human?

If the photo appears to glamorize him — though there’s no evidence the shot has been doctored — it shows Tsarnaev had promise, potential that he so gruesomely wasted.

We don’t want to believe someone who appears so normal was capable of such a horrific act. But he was. And the fact he built up the will to carry out a bombing is the story, of which the photo tells the beginning.

“Normal” is exactly how Tsarnaev does not appear in a collection of photos a Massachusetts State Police sergeant, outraged by Rolling Stone’s cover, released Thursday to Boston Magazine. The photos, which the sergeant released without permission from his superiors, show the 19-year-old bloodied and resigned with a sniper’s laser sight trained on his forehead in the moments leading up to his apprehension.

Those photos show Tsarnaev in the light in which we’ve naturally imagined him since he inflicted harm on a major American city. But there was a progression building up to that point. That progression is what Rolling Stone’s cover helps us acknowledge and understand.

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