Commentary 25 Jul 2013 04:16 pm
For a people that often prides itself on being shockproof, it doesn’t take much to shock Americans.
All it took last week was Rolling Stone to put Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar “Jahar” Tsarnaev on its cover.
Many readers were outraged, and #BoycottRollingStone became a trending topic on Twitter almost instantly. The usual national retailers predictably latched onto the controversy as an opportunity for free PR by announcing that they would refuse to carry the issue.
Encouragingly, however, most critics recognize the magazine is within its rights to feature anybody it wants on its cover — such recognition isn’t always a given — just as readers are within their rights not to agree with or support the magazine. Nobody is forcing anybody to buy or read anything, and economic boycotts are a time-honored American tradition. I’ve participated in a few, myself.
In this instance, I was torn over supporting Rolling Stone’s often well-researched, powerfully written reporting and my own aversion to seeing Tsarnaev receive rock-star treatment out front. To be fair, Rolling Stone front covers aren’t exclusively the province of the Jim Morrisons and John Lennons of the world, and placement there doesn’t automatically confer chic endorsement by the editors. Past covers have featured conservative U.S. presidents, social activists and, as has been often pointed out this week, Charles Manson.
In this case, Rolling Stone made it easy for me to sidestep the problem of supporting the magazine financially by posting the entire Tsarnaev article for free on its website.
Online, the story opens with a note from the editors offering sympathy to victims and families of the Boston Marathon bombing. It goes on to say that, because “serious and thoughtful coverage of … political and cultural issues” is a Rolling Stone hallmark and because “Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is young, and in the same age group as many of our readers,” a study of what led him to his actions is worth examination. I don’t know if the same introduction appears in print; my guess is that it’s a reaction to the furor that has erupted since the magazine went on sale.
Summarizing writer Janet Reitman’s lengthy article about Tsarnaev in a few sentences does it an injustice. Suffice to say that it makes good on the editors’ promise, chronicling a young man’s descent into the madness of religious fanaticism and his subsequent decision to kill. It is filled with observations from people who knew him well — high school friends, teachers, and especially his former wrestling coach, all of whom struggle to reconcile their memories of a seemingly normal kid with the “monster” (to use a word taken directly from the controversial cover) he became.
Whether the piece is too sympathetic toward Tsarnaev is for each reader to decide. For me, the real value comes from Reitman’s discussion with various experts on what leads a very small minority of people to become radicalized in their faiths: a mixture of isolation from family and friends, indoctrination into a belief system that promises fulfillment, and disenfranchisement with the existing social order that can become a potent cocktail for violence and murder. It’s in the best interest of every American to recognize these warning signs — to the extent that we can — to help prevent future tragedies.
Meanwhile, as a counter argument of sorts, Boston Magazine has published images of Tsarnaev on the day he was captured, bloody and bedraggled, a far cry from the handsome young man staring out at us from Rolling Stone. Maybe one of these images, taken by Sgt. Sean Murphy of the Massachusetts State Police (who is the subject of an internal investigation for releasing the photos), would have been a more appropriate cover for Rolling Stone.
But that’s a moot point, as the images weren’t available until anger over the Rolling Stone cover compelled Murphy to make them public. That’s what good reporting does, ultimately: Brings to light that which was hidden and forces us to face sometimes uncomfortable truths.
By that standard, then, though perhaps not by the standards of good taste, Rolling Stone’s decision was sound.
cschillig on Twitter
Originally published on July 25, 2013, in The Alliance Review.