Dzhokhar Tsarnaev: Superstar
It’s not surprising to me that in a Huffington Post/YouGov poll respondents felt the Rolling Stone cover of a sultry looking accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was “inappropriate” by a 65 percent to 15 percent margin. Fifty-one percent says the cover glorified Tsarnaev’s actions.
For me the problem is that it’s Rolling Stone. I love Rolling Stone magazine. They feature great, insightful journalism with such hard-hitting writers as the late Michael Hastings, William Greider and Matt Taibbi. It’s not just a music magazine. However, if you asked the public to name the number one music magazine, an overwhelming majority is going to say Rolling Stone. And putting the photo they used on this cover says, “Rock Star.” And when you do that, you can’t help but glorify the alleged killer.
So while Time and Newsweek have featured Osama Bin Laden, Hitler and Timothy McVeigh on their covers, those are newsmagazines. And while it may be undeserved since it does have a strong journalism record, Rolling Stone is perceived as an entertainment magazine.
Defenders of the publication say we must look at the handsome face of this kid. Comedian Bill Maher recently said, “Did anybody notice the fact that the guy on the cover, the bomber, looks cute? That’s the point of the story…that the devil sometimes looks cute.”
The obvious point that you can’t judge a book by its cover is old news. History is replete with attractive people who’ve done monstrous things. When Patricia Krenwinkle, Susan Atkins, Charles “Tex” Watson and Leslie Van Houten were arrested as part of the Manson Family for the Tate-LaBianca killings, America was stunned. How did attractive kids from middle class families, college kids, a homecoming queen, a singer in a church choir, become vicious killers?
From the Menendez brothers to Susan Smith to Timothy McVeigh to American Taliban, John Walker Lindh, who grew up in an upper middle class family and ended up on the battlefields of Afghanistan, we’ve seen good-looking, seemingly normal people go bad.
I understand what Rolling Stone is trying to do. Exploring why people do these awful things is important. People should read the Rolling Stone article, but the problem is most won’t. In fact, because of the photo, people are making a point not to read it. That is unfortunate. But the controversy over the photo drowns out the story.
Why use this picture and give Dzhokhar Tsarnaev the rock star treatment? If you Google him you can find plenty of photos they could’ve used. This kid, like most teenagers, took lots of photos of himself. They could’ve also used a photo of him lying prone, face covered in blood with Boston Police making the arrest. That photo which shows Tsarnaev’s skinny white midriff exposed struck me by how young and vulnerable he looked. The photo released by a police officer in response to the Rolling Stone cover of a bloody Dzhokhar with arm raised giving up with a red laser sighting on his forehead is a powerful image that conveys that this was a vulnerable young kid, but also shows what he became. Obviously Rolling Stone didn’t have access to that picture and wouldn’t have used it anyway.
If GQ Magazine featured a photo of serial killer Ted Bundy on the cover, but the story inside was how charming and attractive evil can be, it wouldn’t stop people from being outraged. There’s something unseemly about giving that kind of attention to a monster. Putting a rapist on the cover of a magazine that normally featured hunky male models and celebrities would strike many as sick, even though it could claim to make a similar point that the Tsarnaev Rolling Stone cover makes.
Another thing that bothers me is the fact that we’re only interested in Dzhokhar Tsarnaev because he’s handsome. If he was 300 lbs and homely, yet all the other facts about him were the same, there would be no interest in his background. It bothers me for the same reason it bothered me that the world was so floored and enamored with Britain’s Got Talent star, Susan Boyle. Yes, she has the vocal chops but we were all mesmerized because she was so homely.
It’s not just that Dzhokhar doesn’t deserve the rock star treatment. It’s that a cover like this makes him cool. I’m not worried about him looking cool in the abstract. I’m concerned about the real world implications of glamorizing a young killer. Other lone wolves will be inspired by the media attention this cover draws.
Some radical Islamic terrorists are drawn to commit their acts to receive their 72 virgin reward in the afterlife. Our disturbed young American lone wolves are often motivated by a desire for tame. They’ll take infamy. The next young radical will want his face on Rolling Stone. They’ll be taking plenty of sultry shots in front of their bathroom mirror for their closeup.
One of the things that’s shocking is how much other killers inspire spree killers. George Hennard, who killed 23 people in Luby’s Cafeteria in Killeen, Texas in 1991, had a wealth of information in his apartment on James Huberty’s killing spree in a McDonald’s in San Ysidro, California in 1984. It’s been reported that Sandy Hook killer Adam Lanza had collected information on Anders Behring Breivik, the pretty blonde Norwegian killer who killed 77 people, mostly children, in 2011. It’s not uncommon for school shooters to be found with dossiers on Colombine and other school shootings.
Now, no one is saying the press should be censored. Rolling Stone has the absolute right to court the controversy that sells magazines by putting this photo on their cover. But I fear it will have a cost. One of the costs is that people won’t read the article because of the cover. The other is that this sexy cover will end up on the basement wall of a teenage lone wolf plotting jihad, or some reckless act.
Spree killers are basically losers and loners looking to make their mark. They want their fifteen minutes of fame. They want to be on the news. It’s why Colombine’s Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris made videos of their preparation. It’s why Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech killer of 31 people, took photos of himself in combat gear and aiming pistols at the camera like he was the star of an action movie. It’s why Aurora shooter James Holmes dyed his hair and took on the persona of the Joker. They want those headlines. They want everyone to know their name. They want to go out in a blaze of infamy.
They want to go out as a rock star.