This week, Rolling Stone magazine brought the Boston bombing back to the forefront of discussion with a cover story on suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. At issue for most people is not the article itself, which can be quibbled with on many counts, but is at least a good-faith attempt at a thorough and serious examination of the factors that led to Tsarnaev's alleged crime. The complaints have been lodged primarily about the cover, which depicts Tsarnaev in a relaxed, "aren't I dreamy?" kind of pose beneath block letters spelling out THE BOMBER. It almost looks like a page from a teen fan mag, maybe a feature on a boy band, to be followed by pages with similar soft-focus photos of THE DRUMMER, THE JOCK, and THE THINKER. Not surprisingly, many Boston residents are outraged and insulted.
There's an argument to be made -- and several HuffPost bloggers have done so eloquently -- that the Rolling Stone cover actually did us a service by forcing us to confront the reality that someone as unlikely as Americanized, handsome Tsarnaev could commit such brutal acts of terrorism. To make us consider that, as blogger Harrison Bennett puts it, America's "current state of affairs is not entirely the product of foreign evils," but rather that radicalization can be an American problem too. But ultimately, I remain unpersuaded. This notion that Tsarnaev's radicalization was both home-grown and mysterious -- one of the themes of writer Janet Reitman's feature on Tsarnaev -- is hard to accept given that we also know (and learn from Reitman) that Dzhokhar's revered older brother Tamerlan very much connected his recently found devotion to radical Islam with his Chechen roots. In any case, the point could have been made without resorting to a cover that artistically reduced the Boston tragedy to a frivolous portrait of an angelic stoner.
Perhaps my greatest problem with both the cover and the piece is that both seem to cast Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as, if not an innocent victim exactly, then at least as a neutral and unfortunate party on which radicalization was visited. Like it was something that happened to him, rather than a result of decisions he made and thoughts he had. At one point, Reitman notes that at about the same time that Tamerlan was immersing himself in Islam, Dzhokhar allegedly had a conversation with a friend about 9/11 and said that such terrorist attacks are sometimes justified because of what the U.S. does in other countries. But Reitman quickly gets Dzhokhar off the hook: "Whether or not [Dzhokhar] truly agreed with his brother, their relationship was one where he couldn't really question him," she writes. Then she quotes a Chechen/American acquaintance of the Tsarnevs who explains that in Chechen families you have to listen to your older brother.
That's quite an easy shrugging off of what is a very disturbing sentiment: that it's okay to murder thousands of innocent Americans to make a statement about U.S. foreign policy. And it seems to miss a lot of important ground, such as: It also entirely possible that Dzhokhar genuinely and wholeheartedly held the same view as Tamerlan. Plus, if he didn't, it's arguably equally disturbing that he would "go along" with a murderous and vicious sentiment simply because he didn't have the stomach to disagree with his brother. (Of course, his brother was not present when he allegedly told his friend his own view on 9/11.)
Along the same lines of minimizing the volitional aspect of Dzhokhar's crimes, the summary of the story on the Rolling Stone cover reads: "How a popular, promising student was failed by his family, fell into radical Islam and became a monster." As though it's a natural progression -- if your family isn't there for you, of course you will simply drop into a hateful ideology and end up murdering and maiming hundreds. Throw not being able to afford Brandeis or Tufts into the mix and it's all explained. Forces beyond your control.
One of the most telling parts of the article is when Reitman quotes the friend to whom Dzhokhar expressed his bullish take on terrorism. "In terms of politics," the friend says. "I'd say [Dzhokhar]'s just as anti-American as the next guy in Cambridge [Massachusetts]." I can't help but think that there's much truth to this statement. And that it both extends far beyond Cambridge and helps explain why Rolling Stone's editors wouldn't have had the judgment to realize the pain and disgust their latest cover might cause.
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