Rolling Stone doesn’t lionize a terrorist; it offers unsettling reality
Photo credit: Sean Murphy/Associated Press.
In response to Rolling Stone‘s controversial cover photo and feature article, Sgt. Sean Murphy of the Massachusetts State Police released a photo of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, bullet-riddled, blood-crusted, and with a sniper “dot” trained on his forehead and declared, “This is the real Boston bomber. Not someone fluffed and buffed for the cover or Rolling Stone magazine.”
As soon as Murphy’s photo release and comment hit the inter webs the public went ballistic. “Hell yeah! That’s what an Islamist piece of shit looks like,” blasted one commenter. Thousands of others followed suit. You can almost envision a collective American fist pump, and a testerone-fueled growl bellowing in unison: “Amer-icuh — Fuck yeah!”
And honestly, I understand this impulse. I really do. I had it after 9/11. I had it after the subway bombings in London. Hell, I had it myself the very day they caught this evil son of a bitch in a suburb outside of Boston. I was ecstatic with how quickly law enforcement and a few heroic citizens brought this vile monster to his knees.
My problem? Murphy’s photo is not what Tsarnaev looked like and the one on RS is. Oh sure, for a brief moment — just long enough for Murphy to take Tsarnaev’s gruesome surrender photo — the bomber was indeed a hollowed-out, limping bag of flesh. But RS wasn’t writing solely of that singular moment in the horrific chain of events; instead, journalist Janet Reitman was attempting to uncover “how a popular, promising student was failed by his family, fell into radical Islam and became a monster.” Key words here:
These terms are juxtaposed on the cover against what my iPinon colleague Debra DeAngelo describes as the “angelic face of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, a morph of Jim Morrison and Eros.”
You see, Murphy was 100 percent incorrect in his last statement; Tsarnaev was not “fluffed and buffed” for RS’ cover. In reality, that’s exactly what the “monster” looked like. He worked out regularly. He had piercing eyes, a baby face, and tousled hair. By all accounts he was social and charming, intelligent and quick to smile. The magazine photo was lifted from his Facebook account and had already been used by multiple mainstream news organizations before RS printed it. There was absolutely no “fluff”ing and buff”ing involved as Sgt. Murphy asserts.
And as the editors of RS explain in the introduction, the article’s intent is “for us to examine the complexities of this issue and gain a more complete understanding of how a tragedy like this happens.” Another key word we encounter here: “how” (this word also appears on the cover of the magazine.) And this exceptionally important question is not answered in the ephemeral moment of surrender captured in Murphy’s snapshot. Rather, it is best answered in the contradictory elements of Tsarnaev himself: the amiable and the evil, the charming and the disgusting, the angelic and the monstrous.
A reasonable question you may have of me: If I truly shared Murphy’s and millions of other Americans’ ecstatic response to law enforcement’s speedy capture of Tsarnaev as I claimed above, why would I so vehemently defend RS’ decision? Why wouldn’t I simply join the chorus of calls for an RS boycott or demand they print a new edition with a photo more similar to Murphy’s version on the cover?
Because, once again, it doesn’t answer the “how”, and it doesn’t offer us any clues as we, as a society, collectively scan the future for the next threat.
The dynamics of war have changed. America’s enemies (whether they be school shooters, plane hijackers or bombers — whether they are amongst the mentally ill or the religiously deranged) don’t don crisp, easily-identifiable uniforms and line up on the opposite end of a battlefield.
They sit in your 8 a.m. econ classes. They work out at Gold’s Gym. They party with your daughters.
They smile sweetly for the yearbook.
This particular one even smoked pot.
They look a lot like your kids’ friends.
Moving forward, it will be those who are willing to interrogate the deeply vexatious and degenerate parts of our societal shadows who arrive at the truth (even if the truth in some instances is merely the discovery of insanity). It won’t be the Sgt. Murphys, the magazine boycotters, or the easily offended who get us to arrive at this truth. It will be hard-hitting journalists like Reitman. It will be the psychologists, the criminologists, and all of those who make a living going places that others are too anxious to travel.
Before you denounce something too quickly, why don’t you read the actual article? And just in case you’re going to stubbornly stand your ground and insist on not giving RS a single dime, we’ve provided a link to the article here for free. That way you can “stick it to ’em” at the same time you just maybe, possibly, perhaps learn a thing or two.
And it’s important to learn. Because I can assure you of this: When I teach hundreds of young and impressionable college students daily, I often catch myself watching for subtle signs of danger in my classrooms — whether that danger stems from fundamentalist beliefs, abusive family lives, or mental health.
But I have never kept my eye out for a bloodied student with a glowing dot on his forehead.