Rolling Stone has unveiled its next cover, featuring a dreamy photo of Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and many people have erupted in outrage. Some critics say the image depicts Tsarnaev as a kind of celebrity; others believe it turns him into a martyr. Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick called the cover “out of taste,” while CVS has banned the issue “out of respect for the victims of the attack and their loved ones.” A smaller chain of New England stores is also boycotting the magazine for “glorify[ing] evil actions.” Never mind that the picture itself once appeared on the front page of the New York Times; when Rolling Stone uses it, they’re “tasteless,” “trashy,” and “exploitative.”
As the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple points out, the image is exploitative—but it isn’t just exploitative: It’s also smart, unnerving journalism. By depicting a terrorist as sweet and handsome rather than ugly and terrifying, Rolling Stone has subverted our expectations and hinted at a larger truth. The cover presents a stark contrast with our usual image of terrorists. It asks, “What did we expect to see in Tsarnaev? What did we hope to see?” The answer, most likely, is a monster, a brutish dolt with outward manifestations of evil. What we get instead, however, is the most alarming sight of all: a boy who looks like someone we might know.
Judging from the article itself, the image is disconcertingly apt. The story, a two-month investigative report by Janet Reitman, tracks Tsarnaev’s tragic, dangerous path from a well-liked student to a monster, focusing on the increasing influence of radical Islam. (The headline on the cover suggests as much; those immediately outraged by the picture might do well to read the accompanying text.) That slide from likable teenager to troubled murderer is a potent narrative—and not a new one. Time magazine profiled the Columbine shooters through a similar lens, calling them “the monsters next door” on their cover and asking, “What made them do it?”
Few people complained, however, when the Columbine shooters graced the cover of Time, perhaps in part because that magazine is devoted primarily to news, whereas Rolling Stone devotes more space to music and culture. And it’s certainly true that Rolling Stone’s cover is prime celebrity real estate; many forget that the late Michael Hastings’ explosive piece on General Stanley McChrystal was tucked in an issue featuring Lady Gaga on the cover.
But Rolling Stone has published several other terrific works of journalism, and its editors have stood by their cover. And they are right to do so. They are not “glorifying” anyone. Whatever “glory” this cover brings is more in line with infamy than celebrity; after all, the text of the cover describes him as “the bomber” and “a monster.” Yes, the editors were surely aware that Tsarnaev has attracted a bizarre fan base of young women professing their crushes and asserting his innocence. But it’s ridiculous to assume that the magazine was playing off his strange cult following—an assumption we would never make for Time or the New York Times.
We may want the media to reconfirm for us that psychopaths are crazed, nutty, creepy recluses whom we can easily identify and thus avoid. But, as this cover reminds us, that simply isn’t the case. Some psychopaths point guns at cameras; others snap selfies in T-shirts. As Tsarnaev’s many friends could attest, we aren’t as good as we’d like to believe at spotting the evil beneath the surface.