Rolling Stone Cover of Tsarnaev: How a Face Can Divide a Nation


I remember the provocative photos of Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, and Ashton Kutcher on the cover of Rolling Stone when I was a little girl. In passing by the magazine rack in supermarkets, I always wistfully lingered at the rock-star images of international icons, marveling the high-status position they had attained.

On Friday, when I saw Dzokozar Tsarnaev displayed on the cover of Rolling Stone, I felt wronged. Instead of rock-stars and philanthropists, Rolling Stone now brought fame to a terrorist bomber.

His blasé and not unhandsome appearance on the cover immediately sparked thousands of Twitter haters and online comments with expletives. The close-up showed his soft features and flowing dark hair, reminiscent of the iconic Bob Dylan or Mick Jagger covers. Along with countless tweets like "Fuck Rolling Stone," " No one should ever glamorize violence," and "I will never buy ANY issue of Rolling Stone," Walgreens, CVS, and other local retailers refused to sell copies of the magazine.

I was on board with the Rolling Stone haters and Mayor Thomas Menino, who called the cover a "disgrace". I wanted to join the #boycottrollingstone Twitter bandwagon. As much as I'd like to say that I do not judge a book by its cover, it's part of human nature to do so -- when I first saw the magazine, the image hit my eyes and pushed me away before I could open the magazine and read the words. Rolling Stone failed to anticipate the number of people who, like me, saw the face of a monster on the cover and didn't even want to know what was inside. I was close to banning Rolling Stone from my reading list, but my curiosity was stronger than my rage. So I read the article.

Tsarnaev's narrative is much more elusive than that of Osama bin Laden or many modern terrorists or mass shooters of today. The haunting theme of the story is that Tsarnaev internalized any signs of insanity -- he was unaffiliated with any terrorist organization, and he had no visible mental illnesses. In the wake of America's grief, perhaps we wanted to see the typical maniacal terrorist photo to explain his unspeakable acts against countless innocents. Instead, the leaked photos of the terrorist showed quite the opposite, and the description from friends that he was "just a normal American kid" made Tsarnaev's persona even more ill fitting for the terrorist position.

In the face of this mysterious persona, Janet Reitman did an excellent job of piecing together a narrative for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, or "Jahar" -- his American nickname. The article hinges on interviews with Tsarnaev's coach, friends, teachers, and neighbors who saw charm -- not terrorism -- in the boy. Reitman delves into Tsarnaev's complicated roots, explaining the political turmoil his parents faced in the North Caucasus region, the war that forced his family to flee from their home, and the underpaid work that his parents took in America. According to a family friend, Jahar's mother "adored her children," and as a child, Jahar was a "nice, calm, compliant, pillow-soft kid." In high school, Jahar was a diligent student, had a diverse group of friends, and was the captain of the wrestling team. He was the handsome boy with a gentle and laidback demeanor, who was a natural at sports and school.

Reitman investigated to find the side of Jahar that no one else could see. The money that his father made as a car mechanic and his mother made giving salon facials was not enough, so they received food stamps and cash payouts. His older brother, Tamerlan, was having mental issues after his dreams of becoming an Olympic wrestler were dashed -- he was disqualified because he was not an American citizen. His mother encouraged Tamerlan to look to religion. As Tamerlan became increasingly religious, he became so intense that he became hostile to anything or anyone against the practices of Islam. Reitman explains that the father became "depressed by his wife's and son's religiosity," so he moved back to Russia in 2011 and divorced his wife. During this time, Jahar's mother was arrested for attempting to shoplift $1600 worth of clothes. She returned to Russia to escape prosecution, where she reconciled with Jahar's father.

Reitman investigates the changes in Jahar's life in the years before the bombing. He received a scholarship to UMass Dartmouth, and according to his tweets, he was unimpressed by the school and found the classes unchallenging. His parents were gone, his family welfare benefits were cut, he had more than $20,000 of student debt, and he fell under the influence of Tamerlan and his ideology. In the midst of his personal struggles, Jahar committed a horrifying act of terrorism with his brother.

According to Reitman, no one is born a monster. She was trying to find what makes a monster. Her account of the mounting pressures and pains in Jahar's life certainly does not excuse him from his actions, but it sheds light on what causes a person to commit such an extreme act of violence. Reitman included a quote about immigrant children by Wick Sloane, an education advocate and local community-college professor, "When I look at what they've been through, and how they are screwed by federal policies from the moment they turn around, I don't understand why all of them aren't angrier. I'm actually kind of surprised it's taken so long for one of these kids to set off a bomb." Jahar was certainly angry. And he projected his problems onto America as his monstrous transformation occurred.

After finishing the article, I no longer felt the same disgust toward the cover photo. The story was an examination of Jahar's life -- the life of a young boy turned terrorist. Only a photo of Jahar would have been fitting. In fact, I remembered how I had seen the same photo on the cover of the New York Times and many other "hard news" publications, and what little feeling I had towards the photo then. The controversial cover photo revealed how narrow-minded and virulent the online community can be -- before even reading an article. Before Tsarnaev was on the cover of Rolling Stone, our media had already moved on to other news. Despite the contempt that the cover garnered, it inevitably brought the shocking event back to the forefront of media -- examining the tragic transformation of a human being, and reminding us of the countless lives affected by tragedy that ensued.