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There is a furor going on about the cover of Rolling Stone’s August issue. No, it isn’t over a rock star flashing her boobs or his package at schoolchildren; is isn’t even about an over-the-top image of blood and gore. It is a self-portrait of accused Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in which he looks like a curly-haired kid with romantic aspirations.
No one has complained about the long and excellent article on Tsarnaev inside the magazine by contributing editor Janet Reitman, Jahar’s World. But because of that photo in which Tsarnaev looks like anyone else, rather than like a mad bomber, CVS, Walgreens, Rite Aid, 7-11, KMart, and who-all knows how many other stores in Massachusetts and across the country, are pulling the issue from their stands. TV pundits are bloviating, happy for something to get them off the Zimmerman/Martin atrocity for a while. Second-rank rock stars are issuing statements saying, ‘If that’s sort thing Rolling Stone is going to put on its cover I will no longer pray every night to get my face on the cover of Rolling Stone.’
The text over the photo tells you exactly what the Reitman’s article is about: “THE BOMBER: How a Popular, Promising Student Was Failed by His Family, Fell into Radical Islam and Became a Monster.”.
Had Rolling Stone posted an image of Tsarnaev looking bruised and battered, as he did in the first images after his arrest (e.g. this one of him on the ground, handcuffed and bleeding), there wouldn’t have been a peep from anyone. Had they posted an image of him looking sly, sinister and evil, there wouldn’t have been a peep from anyone.
The rage is over the fact that, in this picture, he looks like anyone else. Monsters aren’t supposed to look like anyone else. In the movies, they hardly ever look like anyone else. On TV they hardly ever look like anyone else. In Doré’s illustrations to the Divine Comedy they hardly ever look like anyone else. So why should they look like anyone else on the cover of Rolling Stone?
Because they do, that’s why.
In 1979, Diane Christian and I made a film about men waiting to be executed in Texas. At screenings the next few years, the single comment we got more than any other was this: “But they look like anybody else.”
“What did you want,” we’d answer, “that we make them look like murderers?”
“Well,” we’d often hear in response, “aren’t they?”
“And what,” we’d say, “is a murderer supposed to look like?” No one ever had a good answer for that. So we’d say, “Well, we showed you.”
And that’s what Rolling Stone did. Not the face of a fiend, not a face you’d pick out in the crowd, not the face of someone you’d look at and think, “There’s a guy who’d blow people’s legs off at the knees and kill children to make a political point.”
No: it is a face like any other, and that is part of the real terror of it all. That is the point Rolling Stone was making with that cover image. That’s what the fury is about: not that Rolling Stone got it wrong, but that Rolling Stone got it right.
Bruce Jackson’s most recent books are Inside the Wire: Photographs from Texas and Arkansas Prison (University of Texas Press, 2013) and In This Timeless Time Living and Dying on Death Row in America (with Diane Christian, University of North Carolina Press, 2012). He is SUNY Distinguished Professor and James Agee Professor of American Culture at University at Buffalo