I almost didn’t write this blog out of respect to the victims of the April 15th bombing, and also to not give any additional fame to Dzhokar Tsarnaev or “Jahar” who, with his brother Tamerlan Tsarnaev, became the freshest faces of terrorism after the Boston Marathon bombing. However, seeing Jahar’s face plastered across the upcoming issue of Rolling Stone was too shocking to ignore.
The phrase, “Too soon?” comes to mind.
With the bombings only three and a half months gone by, the smoke from the Boston skyline has yet to fade from memory. Criminal profiling and analysis of any sort is best left to the professionals and yet, as expected, once segments of the media begin to carve their stories of infamous figures, they tread a fine line between dissecting the perpetrator and aesthetic glamorization. Rolling Stone has aimed at somewhere in the middle of this description. Controversy is a big part of their brand and, if the bold editorial decision to put Jahar on its cover was to elicit conversation, they succeeded. Arguments in favor of the cover could stem from a desire to understand why he did such a horrible act, and why we as a society must try to understand where he came from and his life, and also the fact that Rolling Stone has been “tackling” political issues for decades (it’s not just a music magazine).
After a thorough look at Rolling Stone’s article comments and social media pages, it’s apparent that the majority of the public find the cover despicable for Jahar’s glamour shot treatment, NOT the article contents itself. This is understandable, as no amount of editorial transparency can excuse the placement of a terrorist on the cover of such a popular magazine. Glamorizing the terrorist is one of the reasons why other radical or unstable people are motivated to do these crimes, and that’s to attain some level of infamy or stardom in their otherwise directionless lives. The Rolling Stone article itself would have been fine, but front-page placement of Jahar in dreary, rock-star treatment is simply disgusting. The cover tagline, “How a Popular, Promising Student Was Failed By His Family, Fell into Radical Islam and Became a Monster” even attempts to invoke sympathy from the reader.
The Rolling Stone article, which can be found on their website, explores Jahar’s extremist background like a laser guided scalpel, revealing the spiral of family dysfunction, personal pressures, and constant search of an identity, purpose, and sense of belonging. The one remaining constant in his life was his brother Tamerlan, who was himself sinking deeper into the radicalization that ultimately shaped his violent aspirations. As a writer, I must give credit to the article for giving a very thorough portrayal of Jahar and his brother and inviting the reader inside their fractured, unstable lives—and this seems to be the ultimate goal of Rolling Stone, which was to get people to read the article.
Some observations and considerations:
- Rolling Stone is currently experiencing a social media nightmare, with a hailstorm of angry posts and threats of boycotts currently being leveled against the magazine giant by it’s Facebook and Twitter followers. A careful observation of the beehive of social media backlash can reveal that followers are responding to the cover and not the content.
- #boycottrollingstone trended as one of the most popular hashtags on July 17, 2013, the day the article and cover photo were announced.
- Rolling Stone has made a career out of fish-hooking for controversy. The magazine featured Charles Manson on their June 15, 1970 cover, which was one of the highest selling issues and even received a National Magazine Award.
Is it socially responsible to reward radicalism with cover page treatment? Probably not, but tactfulness and sensitivity often escape our media outlets and even ourselves, the viewers, readers, and listeners. America has an long standing fascination with criminals, from folk tales of Billie the Kidd to glorified gangsters such as John Dillinger and Al Capone, the glamorization of the villain has steeped itself into our popular culture. The Godfather I & II, Scarface, Goodfellas, Heat and The Dark Knight remain some of the most popular films ever made to this day, and also the most culturally relevant. In the 1990s we drove the Bronco with OJ and saw the carnage of Columbine, and this year we have met Chris Dorner, Jodia Arias, James Holmes, Adam Lanza, and now Jahar and Tamerlan. Could our anger at Rolling Stone largely just be an anger at our own society, which continues the fascination of the criminal through various mediums?