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By now, you've probably read about Rolling Stone's most recent cover, which features Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev looking like a '70s-era rock dreamboat, or an obscure Teen Beat star. Almost as likely as you having seen it or read about it? You having read someone getting angry or offended over it. According to a Today poll, 90% of the people who see the cover think that it goes too far. CVS is now boycotting the issue. In fact, you might actually be one of those offended people. And if that's the case?
With all due respect: Chill.
Take a step back and realize that this isn't as offensive as people are making it out to be. For starters, it's just a magazine cover. It's a way of attracting readers to an important, compelling story. But there's more.
Let's get a few things straight.
Rolling Stone isn't turning the Boston bomber into a rock star. They're not calling him a teen idol, or a great guy. They're not painting him as a hero. It was an edgy decision, sure. But there's a difference between Tzarnaev looking like a teenage dream, and him being "portrayed" as one. The cover line reads THE BOMBER, in giant type, a few words before they call him a "monster." That's pretty clear. And the photo wasn't from a shoot—it's a selfie.
The New York Times didn't turn him into a rock star on their front page over two months ago. People are upset because Rolling Stone typically puts celebrities on the cover, but remember: Rolling Stone has often had a great if not brilliant political desk, and this photo appeared in the benchmark for daily newspapers around the world, with virtually zero comment.
Rolling Stone didn't do anything unethical. There are no lies on the cover. There is nothing misleading. Nobody boycotted the New York Post when they wrongfully accused two other guys of plotting the bombings and never retracted it.
It's nothing new. Charles Manson once looked like Jesus on the cover of Rolling Stone (see above).
No, the cover doesn't strip him of blame. Complex writer Tanya Ghahremani felt like the answers the cover lines offer—"how a popular, promising student was failed by his family, fell into radical Islam, and became a monster"—strips him of blame. She writes:
There are millions of other people whose families fail them, and they don't turn to terrorism. There are no excuses for becoming a terrorist.
They don't turn to terrorism, but they do become alchoholics, addicts, arsonists, killers, gang members, financial criminals, and then some, which is why extensive sociological research is done on the effects everything from your family to your name can have on your upbringing. The family isn't an excuse, it's a condition, an incubator. How's the world supposed to prevent terrorism if we refuse to understand what leads people to it? In the same way we read origin stories of heroes for inspiration, we need origin stories of villains for cautionary tales. And I don't know about you, but I sure as hell want to know what having a shitty family has to do with becoming a terrorist, so I can do everything in my power to never raise one myself.
Put this into perspective. As Boston-based writer Luke O'Neil noted:
Remember when Time put Hitler on the cover and then no one ever read it again after that?— Luke O'Neil (@lukeoneil47) July 17, 2013
How many deaths you figure cover boys Obama and George Bush are good for?— Luke O'Neil (@lukeoneil47) July 17, 2013
May I remind you that [Boston's] most iconic folklore figure, a sack of potatoes in a track suit, is one of the most notorious mafia bosses in the country's history? We've suffered through decades of the lionization of Whitey Bulger, who, last I checked, carried out a considerable few more murders than Julian Casablancas with a prayer mat over here. And what happened? Have our children grown up wanting to emulate the actions of another, much more prolific killer? They have not. We have, somehow, gone about our business of leading our day-to-day lives. Jack Nicholson played him in [The Departed], and that movie won 4 Academy Awards. Yet we soldier on.
The photo as a cover is smart. Realize: Any humble person isn't likely to appear on the cover of Rolling Stone. Humble people don't aspire to live the lives of movie stars or rock stars. Celebrities want to be loved. We often forget about this when we're asking whether or not Taylor Swift is too sexed up on the same kind of cover. And this is a selfie. It speaks volumes about the way Tsarnaev—a terrorist—saw himself, even before he became the Boston Bomber: As a thing to be admired. The subtext here is that the narcisssim it takes to become a religious martyr or terrorist isn't too many stripes removed from the narcissim it takes to want to make the cover of Rolling Stone. And the way all of us engage in this egotism, the way Tsarnaev did, too—with selfies—is part of a culture that magazines like Rolling Stone and US Weekly (also owned by Wenner Media) started and continues to perpetuate to this day. Finally, the cover screams something radical, and smart: If you've ever taken a selfie, you have at least one thing in common with this guy. That's the kind of sophisticated, challenging idea we should ask of our media outlets more often.
What this comes down to: This is one of those things that looks like something you could be offended by, because it's easy to be offended by. And while it's easy to become part of an outcry of impassioned, popular sentiment, the problem with impassioned popular sentiments is that they often blot out nuance. But if you're really that angry about Rolling Stone, it's best to just ignore it—to call for the burning of the issue is to, as the old party line goes, "let the terrorists win."
Smart, controversial magazine covers that stir up discussions are evidence of Americans continuing to produce some of the best and most iconic media and visual art in the world. When you scare that away, you scare away some of our greatness.
When reached by email, Rolling Stone's creative director Jodi Peckman did not immediately respond to a request for comment. We will update this post if we hear back.
FURTHER READING: Here's Looking At You Kid, From Boston [Esquire]