Rolling Stone’s Tsarnaev and Public Outrage

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by Matthew Kupfer on 7/18/2013 · 3 comments

On August 20th, five days after the Boston Marathon bombing, I published a post on Registan, “Contextualizing Media Claims in Boston,” in which I criticized several questionable or inaccurate claims the media was making about alleged Boston bomber Dzhohar Tsarnaev and enjoined readers to look beyond stereotypes of the “Islamist-Jihadist ‘Other’” and take the opportunity to reconsider how we understand terrorism. My point was that terrorists do not necessarily conform to the image that over a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq had created in our minds. They don’t necessarily appear to be anti-social lunatics, dress in so-called “Muslim garb,” or have long beards and wild eyes. They could look like you or me and still be terrorists.

My post seemed to vocalize something that others were also thinking and attracted attention from people who don’t typically read Registan. That made me believe that perhaps the tragic terror attack in Boston might change our understanding of terrorism and make us reconsider the way our media covers it. I hoped that this would lead to less ethnic stereotyping, to which much of the media subjected the Chechen community in the wake of the bombing, and less racial profiling. In short, I thought that if a seemingly well-adjusted, ordinary American teenager could become a terrorist, it might make us strive to better understand the causes and psychology of terrorism. Like most of our writers and readers, I believe that more information and better understanding are always good things.

Recently, Rolling Stone magazine has drawn widespread criticism for putting a photo of Dzhohar Tsarnaev on the cover of its August 1st issue. Many people—ranging from ordinary readers and internet users to the mayor of Boston—have claimed the photograph glamorizes Tsarnaev and is disrespectful to the victims of the bombing. They argue that the photo makes the bomber look like Jim Morrison, Bob Dylan, or any of the other rock stars to grace the magazine’s cover. CVS, Walgreens, and a few other major retailers have even declined to sell this issue of Rolling Stone.

I have enormous sympathy and respect for the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing and the city of Boston, where I studied for four years, but I can’t help feeling that this reaction, though understandable, misses the point of the cover and is, perhaps, even harmful. Dzhohar Tsarnaev’s transformation from a supposedly ordinary teenager into a terrorist still remains the mystery of the Boston Marathon bombing. What is so frightening about him is the fact that he doesn’t look like the Islamic radicals that the US has been fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. Seeing his photo on television in April, many of us felt that we could have known him or someone just like him. He wasn’t a boogeyman like Osama bin Laden. He seemed like a normal teenager. And that’s what scared us.

The accompanying article in Rolling Stone, “Jahar’s World” by Janet Reitman, is fascinating, thoroughly reported, and well written. Though it fails to uncover a clear-cut motive for the Boston Marathon bombing or precisely explain how Tsarnaev transformed into a terrorist, it contributes to the narrative of the bombing and it satisfies our innately human desire to better understand the world around us—including those things that are unpleasant or frightening. It presents more completely than ever before the disconnect between Tsarnaev’s public persona—the nice guy his friends knew—and his identity as one of the alleged terrorists responsible for so much carnage.

The cover photo itself, in my opinion, also effectively forces us to reconcile Tsarnaev’s horrible crime with his boyish looks and laid-back affect. In criticizing the Rolling Stone photo—which had appeared in many other publications and was not significantly modified by Rolling Stone—we are essentially saying that Tsarnaev should be a boogeyman, that he should look like a “stereotypical” terrorist. That may make us feel better, but it isn’t correct.

Stereotyping is dangerous, even when it is used against someone we despise. It fundamentally clouds our understanding of the world around us and prevents us from seeing people for who they actually are. This is an especially important lesson at the present moment, after the George Zimmerman trial, when the media is actively discussing racial profiling and whether an African-American wearing a hoodie somehow represents a threat. The murder of Trayvon Martin, an honors student on his way back home from a 7-11, shows us the danger of using stereotypes to define a person. In a different way, the case of Dzhohar Tsarnaev should also emphasize that point: a terrorist is not necessarily a dark-skinned person or the “Other.”

The Rolling Stone cover makes this point very well.

I’m not ignoring the fact that Rolling Stone undoubtedly chose this photograph with the aim of selling more magazines. Nor am I suggesting that Rolling Stone had no idea that its cover would cause controversy. But it’s important to consider how widespread this photograph was and how little Rolling Stone actually did. It simply put the photo on the cover and that touched a nerve in a community still rightfully reeling from a ghastly bombing that took three lives and seriously injured hundreds of others. The reaction to the Rolling Stone cover is understandable, but that doesn’t make it right.

Once again, I say that there are lessons to be learned from the tragedy in Boston. We have to face the very things that scare us and strive to understand them as they are, not as we want them to be.

Magazine design is an art. Good art forces us to look at the world from a new perspective, one we might otherwise never have seen. By this definition, the cover of Rolling Stone’s August 1st issue is good art: it forces us to momentarily see Dzhohar Tsarnaev as his friends and teachers saw him. That may make us uncomfortable, even angry, but, in the end, it will be good for us.

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This post was written by...

– author of 13 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Matthew Kupfer is a writer focused on Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia and a graduate student at Harvard University's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. A witness to the 2010 interethnic unrest in southern Kyrgyzstan, he is particularly interested in conflicts and interethnic relations in the former Soviet Union. Matthew's research and writing has covered topics as diverse as the interethnic violence in Kyrgyzstan, women's rights in Central Asia, the history of genocide accusations in the former Soviet Union, and the Ukraine Crisis. His work has been published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Moscow Times, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty,, and Follow him on Twitter at @Matthew_Kupfer.

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JD Higgins July 23, 2013 at 9:30 pm

You managed to write an article about “terrorism,” a “terrorist,” and a “Muslim” without once mentioning Islam. Yet, I would bet you that most Americans would closely associate these words.

I think the response to the Rolling Stones cover has as much to do with Islamophobia, bigotry, and good ole’ American hatred than it does with any of the things you mentioned. Americans have a strong puritanical streak and the truth is, whether anyone likes to admit it or not, we just don’t like Muslims. That’s why we can fetishize the murder of 3 Americans while ignoring and sanctioning the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Muslims for not much better reason than our inflated sense of insecurity and privilege.

Matthew Kupfer July 26, 2013 at 8:38 pm

I disagree. I think this controversy has little to do with Islam and much to do with a relatively common concern in the US: that media coverage of killers gives them fame, something that is increasingly valued in American culture and the age of social media. I’ve seen this discussed in relation to crimes with zero religious or ethnic context, too. Sure, some Americans hate Muslims and are bigots, but that’s almost unrelated to this the controversy over the Rolling Stone cover. People are angry because Dzhohar Tsarnaev didn’t look criminal or evil and, therefore, putting him on the cover of Rolling Stone makes him look like a celebrity.

Cal July 28, 2013 at 12:42 pm

You seem to highly praise the magazine for it’s writing and pictures but many of us are outraged not because of the fact that the bomber forced us to realize a terrorist could be anyone but because it glamorized terrorism. How many people are now going to look at this rock star-esque picture and think to themselves…..huh 15 minutes of fame…right there and easy. I believe this appalling article promotes terrorism more than it does to inform on it.

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