'Fundamentalist' Americans miss the point of Boston bomber cover


Rolling Stone cover featuring a photograph of the alleged Boston bomber, Dzhokhar TsarnaevGlory is the preserve of the patriotic American. Never was this belief more obvious than when Rolling Stone dared to publish on the cover of its latest edition a photograph of the alleged Boston bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. The photograph — a face-on profile of the young, good-looking Chechen, his hair tousled, his chin stubbled — provoked a storm of fury so blistering Americans vowed in droves to cancel subscriptions, boycott advertisers, call for heads to roll, refuse to buy or sell it, burn the offending magazine or use it as fish wrap and toilet paper.

It wasn't the content — an insightful, tragic backstory about how a promising young man got drawn into a violent fundamentalist world — that had offended; indeed, most commentators seem not to have read the article at all. Rather, it was the fact that the American public, raised on a diet of reality shows and celebrity, instinctively conflated publicity with fame. It assumed Rolling Stone was glorifying Tsarnaev by placing him on its cover.

The response reflected in part the iconic status Rolling Stone holds in the collective American psyche: supplanting the usual subjects — cool, idolised, semi-clothed rock stars and actresses — with an alleged terrorist was just too distasteful for most.

But it was really the image itself which prompted such violent reaction, for it failed to mesh with people's perceptions of what a terrorist might look like: Tsarnaev wasn't sporting a long beard or wearing Islamic clothing, his eyes didn't glisten with malice, his persona didn't suggest aggression or sociopathic traits, he wasn't photographed sitting in the midst of some far-off Islamic conflict. Indeed, this image carries no hint that the subject is in fact Muslim, and an alleged terrorist.

Those who had already convicted Tsarnaev would have experienced uncomfortable dissonance while viewing his image, for how does one reconcile the angelic, appealing face peering out from the magazine with the heinous crimes with which he has been charged?

And it is herein that the brilliance of this cover lies: it presents Tsarnaev as the boy-next-door, and then invites readers on an investigative journey that explains precisely why he isn't. It challenges the way in which Americans perceive the world, and cleverly illustrates the danger of stereotyping by subverting the classic, benign Rolling Stone cover. It asks readers to consider what drives a young man with opportunities to lash out at the country that has taken him in, and encourages thoughtful reflection on how violence is bred by apparently normal people in an apparently normal society, how the US is perceived abroad, how such atrocities might be prevented in future.

But a picture is worth more than a thousand words, and, in the case of the Tsarnaev Rolling Stone cover, the public has instantaneously rejected the message. Instead of engaging with the coverage and the debate that might have ensued among readers, they have seized up with anger and lashed out at Rolling Stone and anyone who supports it, including readers and advertisers. In so doing, they have invoked the stiflingly patriotic adage adopted by George W. Bush shortly after the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers: you're either with us or against us.

This attitude is fundamentalist in that it allows no room for nuance or dissent; it signals the drawing close of a great big curtain of moral rectitude, and highlights the tendency among Americans to unify parochially against all perceived affronts to national security. Rather than using this opportunity to gain a dispassionate understanding of the man who took lives and limbs in Boston, and to view their own flawed country through the eyes of a foreigner, these critics have closed ranks for fear of giving him glory.

But it's naïve to assume that publicity equals fame, that readers are so malleable as to believe that Tsarnaev is a martyr because he looks good on the cover of a magazine. It's an affront to quality journalism and a free press when a large chunk of the populace judges the whole story by a single cover.

Catherine Marshall headshotCatherine Marshall is a journalist and travel writer.

Topic tags: Catherine Marshall, Rollin Stone, Boston bombing, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev



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Existing comments

There are many levels and layers of meanings people get from a cover/headline/sound grab/story. There is no "one" correct meaning. I am naive enough to believe that the only real meaning that matters is what it means to the victims of the bombings and their loved ones. They are not going to sit down and read such an article "dispassionately". Basically I agree that the cover was offensive and a crass way to sell magazines. A better cover photo would be those of the mangled bodies of the victims - also in the case of mass shootings.

AURELIUS | 19 July 2013  

My greatest concern with placing the photo on the cover of the magazine is that a trial has not yet occurred. That means he is presumed to be innocent until proven guilty. The magazine article rakes over 'how a promising young man got drawn into a violent fundamentalist world'. Maybe media needs to take a good hard look at its own methods.

Pam | 19 July 2013  

Yes and no, Catherine. Would the cute face of one of the victims have been perhaps more appropriate? How cute is cute? Cute with shrapnel in your cheeks? Cute with no limbs? This story has got right out of control on the internet, making it already an established part of journalistic history. Is that actually a good thing? The online debate is problematized too by the fact that Tsarnaev is alleged to be a Boston bomber, while Rolling Stone has established that he is The Bomber. Why aren’t there lawyers saying this breaches his civil rights? He is innocent until proven guilty, last time I heard, whatever the piles of media evidence pointing all one way. Calling Tsarnaev a ‘monster’ on the cover itself meanwhile is tabloid at its best, not usually the sort of thing we see on a rock magazine like Rolling Stone. Is this the magazine’s final word on the subject and if so, why’s he on the cover? Rolling Stone has never put Mark Chapman on its cover with a warning to people that the boy next door could end up killing John Lennon. Why is that? If I was living in Boston today I would be very angry about all of this, not least because it was predicted at the time of the marathon itself that this sort of thing is precisely what the American media would do: rather than a call for justice, it turns these people into image heroes. That’s the real point of the cover. If they had run the story by itself that’s fine, but the editors knew quite well that someone on the cover of Rolling Stone is being aggrandised, by definition. They chose not to ask the question on this occasion, in favour of notoriety and big sales.

Philip Harvey | 19 July 2013  

@Pam, I agree with you. The editors of Rolling Stone should not assume the young man's guilt until it is decided in court.

MJ | 19 July 2013  

Like Pam and MJ, I haver some uneasiness about the timing of the article, but perhaps that simply reflects a difference between what is acceptable in US and Australian cultures. The impression I get of British culture is that it would be even less acceptable there. But that still leaves the image, and the article, and here I part company with Aurelius. Any picture and any story would prove difficult for the immediate victims and their loved ones, and anyone who has been in a similar position would understand that. But the story wasn't aimed at them. The story, and the cover, were pitched at people, especially young people, and intended to stop them in their tracks and to encourage them to think about the experiences that can induce someone, and perhaps anyone, to believe in the rightness of some deed that the rest of us would abhor. Many people don't want to think like that because it's too hard and the consequences can be unsettling. Most want to feel 'relaxed and comfortable'. Most of the reaction that has occurred in the US seems to have been from older people who don't want to think.

Ginger Meggs | 20 July 2013  

An excellent view of the over reaction.

Bindi | 22 July 2013  

Americans are missing the point? Really? I think Rolling Stone is missing the point. This isn't Newsweek, the New Yorker, Time magazine etc. This is Rolling Stone, and being on the cover has always been seen as prestigious or glamorous--a huge step for a musician to make their first cover. So no, his image shouldn't be there. I haven't read the article, but the article itself sounds insightful. Rolling Stone was obviously looking to create controversy when they decided to go with this cover image though. Why not an image of one of the musicians mentioned on the cover, Jay-Z or Willie Nelson? And the comment by Ginger is just offensive..."older people who don't want to think?" What if one of your family members was killed? What if you lost one of your limbs running in the Marathon? I'm sure you wouldn't appreciate seeing this guy on the cover. It has nothing to do with the fact that he doesn't fit the stereotypical terrorist image, but it has everything to do with the heinous acts committed, which yes he has not yet been convicted of--just one more reason why this cover shouldn't have been used.

SG | 22 July 2013  

I have lived in three different countries and have witnessed the rise of terrorism caused by radical Muslims in each of those countries. But, I have never bought a copy of Rolling Stone, never read one and probably never will. As a Title, it implies to me that it is a Rock Star magazine and if that is the case, does the angelic look of an alleged terrorist belong on the front cover? Say what you will, Rollling Stone F****ed up.

cliff | 22 July 2013  

Grrrrrrrrr! Catherine Marshall writes an insightful article on how the simple dichotomies: good = beautiful; bad = ugly: success = blessing of God; failure = curse of the devil, permeate US society. But instead of assessing Ms Marshall's take on the prevailing attitude within US society - anyone who dares attack (by force or politically) the US is either ugly or the working for Satan, the discussion veers off on to the motives of Rolling Stone.. When I was growing up in Ireland during WW2, Hitler was the ugly diabolical leader of the Huns and brave Uncle Joe Stalin the courageous leader of the peace-loving Russian peasants. After WW2, with Hitler dead, the smiling face of Uncle Joe was unmasked to reveal - the Satanic Soviet Despot. The tricks of propaganda have been developed and refined and played out each day in the media to sell everything from Alcohol to Zinc Cream, from Politics to Religion.

Uncle Pat | 22 July 2013  

A brilliantly written article high lighting how the West places far too much emphasis on appearances.

Dennis Miles | 22 July 2013  

So SG has not read the article and cliff never will, yet they have both formed an adverse opinion about the coverage (article and image). It must be so much easier when the world is divided into goodies and baddies. I rest my case.

Ginger Meggs | 22 July 2013  

Spot on Catherine. A picture does tell a thousand words and this cover tells it as it is. The face of violent radicalism is ordinary. Comforting as it might be to cling to stereotypical images of perceived bad guys, it does not reflect reality and condemns us to the consequences of ignorance. What we should rightly reflect upon is the dissonance this image has triggered... that is where the truth of matter lays.

James | 22 July 2013  

When Hannah Arendt went to the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem in 1961 and wrote about ‘the banality of evil’ she was making the point that there are no special human attributes needed to perpetrate extraordinary moral horror. The Rolling Stone cover suggests graphically that while he has not yet been proven guilty it is possible that someone who looks charming can also do horrific things. Eichmann was found guilty and hanged because, though he was in many ways a banal little bureaucrat who pleaded he was only doing as he was told, he was responsible for his actions and they were evil. He chose to become a mass murderer. How much the Boston bomber chose to become a murderer we must wait and see, but meantime the point is worth making over and over. People who look banal, charming or harmless can do great evil. When the bombs go off it is just as likely the guilty will be among the ordinary rather than among the gross.

Graham English | 22 July 2013  

Yes, Catherine. Just shows what a shallow, visually-dominated world we have created in this 21st C. Judgement is made on appearance. Thinking is departing from the world of verbal communication and is all about 'bites' and appearances requiring no more attention span than a tweet. Perhaps the subtle difference between words like 'fame' and 'notoriety' are too deep for our superficial modern minds. As is, seemingly, the distinction between 'full face' and 'profile'. There is really no such thing as a 'face-on profile!'

JO'D | 22 July 2013  

Ginger--I have not yet had a chance to read the article. I don't feel that my comment has drawn any conclusions about the article. The article itself sounds well worth reading! I only object to glamourising this guy as a cover model--especially on this particular magazine. I've got that old song in my head "cover of the rolling stone" --lyrics "want to get my picture on the cover, want to buy 5 copies for my mother." Cover of Rolling Stone = cool, it's always been seen that way. If it were a different magazine, my feelings might be quite different. In summary, I think there is more to people's objections to the cover. Maybe some of you are the ones jumping to conclusions!

SG | 22 July 2013  

I couldn't agree with (sorrowfully) so very few comments more: Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has pleaded innocent, and yet Rolling Stone, right along with seemingly the rest of the US, is convinced he's guilty. What happened to presumption of innocence and the concept of a fair trial as opposed to a trail by media?

JoH | 22 July 2013  

OK, SG, I take your points. But I would encourage you to read the article and then reflect again on the appropriateness of the cover.

Ginger Meggs | 22 July 2013  

SG, the very fact that Rolling Stone usually does present 'celebrity' on it's front page only increases the dissonant effect I think. The fact that the editorial staff of Rolling Stone would take such a 'brave' and challenging step, I would imagine well realised by them as such, holds out promise that perhaps the 'cult of celebrity' which the US has bestowed on the world in the past few decades is finally being challenging from within. Aside from the possible legal issues of guilt or innocence, the editors of Rolling Stone should be commended for showing such insight.

Mick Mc | 26 July 2013  

Quality journalism, most definitely, but naive not to have cover also contain implied tone of article; or perhaps, am I missing that? Thank you for an excellent thought provoking article.

Rosa McManamey | 06 August 2013  

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