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RED-BLUE AMERICA: Treating terrorists as rock stars?

on July 22, 2013 10:20 AM

Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev appeared last week on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, looking for all the world like one of the pop stars the magazine usually covers.

Outrage greeted the cover choice, with some stores saying they wouldn’t carry the issue in their establishments. Rolling Stone’s editors stuck to their guns, responding; “The fact that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is young, and in the same age group as many of our readers, makes it all the more important for us to examine the complexities of this issue.”

Does it glorify terrorism to put Tsarnaev on Rolling Stone’s cover? Or is it a legitimate act of journalism? Joel Mathis and Ben Boychuk, the Red-Blue America columnists, debate the matter.

JOEL MATHIS: Rolling Stone has nothing to apologize for.

It’s been the case ever since 9/11 that some of the most hawkish among us have conflated “understanding” terrorism with “glorifying” or “sympathizing” with attackers. Questions like, “Why do they hate us?” were dismissed as irrelevant in the face of tragedy, a response that’s both correct and incorrect: Nothing could justify the deaths of thousands of civilians in New York and Washington, just like nothing can justify — or romanticize — the death and injury that accompanied the Boston Marathon.

But journalism doesn’t seek to justify a phenomenon. It seeks to explain it.

And anybody who cares to venture beyond Rolling Stone’s cover will find journalism — and, to the extent possible, explanation — within. Janet Reitman, author of the cover story, is a respected journalist who has covered stories about Iraq and Scientology in recent years. In this case she delved deep into the past of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, digging up records and interviewing the people who had called themselves his friends.

It’s a piece many people will find unsatisfactory, because it doesn’t produce a smoking gun to explain Tsarnaev’s turn to radicalism.

Instead, there are many small clues, none seemingly weighty enough in its own right to cause a man to commit terror.

Having commissioned the piece and having found it worthy to publish, should Rolling Stone have kept Tsarnaev off the cover? That can be argued, perhaps. Certainly, a magazine accustomed to creating the hagiography of rock stars might want to tread carefully when putting an alleged terrorist on its cover.

The people who would glorify Tsarnaev because of the cover, though, are small-minded children who probably would’ve glorified him anyway. The rest of us — the vast, vast majority of us — will continue to recognize Tsarnaev for what he truly is, a monster. That’s precisely how Rolling Stone labels him on the cover. The magazine has done its journalistic duty.

BEN BOYCHUK: Rolling Stone may not have anything to apologize for — other than accelerating the general decline of American culture, that is. But at the very least, the magazine’s editors showed terrible judgment placing one of the alleged Boston bombers on the cover of the August issue.

Had any other publication used the self-portrait of the surviving brother implicated in the murders of three Boston Marathon spectators and a campus police officer, few would have complained. But a magazine known mostly for featuring the latest pop music flavor-of-the-month doesn’t have quite the gravitas of The New York Times.

Most Americans of a certain age understand what the cover of Rolling Stone represents. Whatever the merits of Janet Reitman’s article, the fact remains that the baby-faced bomber — who apparently already has a sizable following of nihilistic young women — joins cult icons such as Kurt Cobain and Jim Morrison in the pop-culture pantheon of wasted youth.

Yes, to Rolling Stone’s credit, at least they refer to the younger brother bombing suspect as a “monster.” But the magazine also touts how the accused terrorist “failed his family” and “fell into Islam,” as if by happenstance. Are we supposed to believe he’s some poor kid who was in the wrong place at the wrong time? A victim of forces beyond his control? That description would be far more fitting for the 170 or so people injured in April’s explosions.

In a just society, the Boston Marathon bombers’ names and faces would be simply blotted out from history. In a just society, the names and faces we would know are Krystle Campbell, Martin Richard, Lingzi Lu and Sean Collier — the four people who died in service of a monstrous and unjust cause. Clearly, we do not live in a just society.

To identify the brother over and over is to give him the fame and notoriety he and his dead brother obviously sought and did not deserve. He’s earned nothing except our contempt and scorn. But he’s got the cover of Rolling Stone.

Reach Ben Boychuk at, Joel Mathis at

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