A summer heat wave can turn the human brain into guacamole. Maybe that explains the brainless reaction to Rolling Stone‘s cover photo of the Boston bomber.
Stuff happened while I was on hiatus last week – the Senate filibuster deal (a brief respite from the chronic dysfunction), Barack Obama’s personal take on Trayvon Martin, and John Boehner’s articulation of the GOP’s unique governing philosophy (“We ought to be judged on how many laws we repeal”) – but the Rolling Stone flap is definitely worth a look, if only as a case study of cognition-challenged hysteria.
The CVS and Walgreens chains are refusing to sell the current issue, which is adorned with an image of Dzhokar Tsarnaev. (This week’s corporate policy: Selling the cover kid is not OK; selling cancer-causing cigarettes is still OK.) The Massachusetts-based Tedeschi grocery chain is also refusing to stock the magazine, declaring in a statement that it “cannot support actions that serve to glorify the evil actions of anyone.” The mayor of Boston complains that the magazine is giving the kid “celebrity treatment.” Former White House national security spokesman Tommy Vietor says the kid has been awarded “rockstar status.” Politicians like John McCain complain that the mag cover is “horrifying” and “stupid.”
I get it that emotions are still running high – understandably so. But let’s give the intellect equal time:
1. Monsters make news. That’s reality. The Columbine High School shooters were magazine cover boys. So was Osama bin Laden. Adolf Hitler was a frequent Time magazine cover boy – indeed, he was “Man of the Year” in January 1939, just two months after his monster minions burned down Berlin’s synagogues and killed Jews on the street during Kristallnacht – and the newsstands sold those issues. Highlighting the monsters in our midst – including Tsarnaev, who’s labeled a monster in the explicit cover headline – is not tantamount to glorifying them.
2. Apparently, a magazine cover photo of Tsarnaev is deemed to be more injurious to the public than the images that routively adorn magazines like Guns & Ammo and Soldier of Fortune. The former glamorizes weaponry on a monthly basis; the latter glamorizes mercenary killers-for-hire. Since those mags are deemed fit for the newsstands, it’s hard to see why one issue of Rolling Stone should be judged more harshly.
3. Those who object to the Rolling Stone cover seem not to realize that the exact same photo dominated the front page of The New York Times on May 5 – yet there was no mass outcry about “glorifying” the kid, and nobody called for a boycott of that day’s paper. The current critics would probably say, “Yeah, well, that was different. The Times reports the news. Rolling Stone is a music magazine.” Wrong. Rolling Stone has featured long-form journalism since the 1970s, and the Tsarnaev article is the product of several months’ in-depth reporting.
4. Not surprisingly, it appears that the critics haven’t bothered to read the article. Had they done so, they’d have quickly understood that the cover photo jibes with the text.
Reporter Janet Reitman writes that she interviewed “friends, teachers and coaches,” and “what emerges is a portrait of a boy who glided through life, showing virtually no signs of anger, let alone radical political ideology or any kind of deeply felt religious beliefs.” Which is precisely the point. The angelic-looking kid on the mag cover is the kid that everyone knew – or thought they knew.
The assiduously-detailed article, in sync with the cover image, highlights one of the prime perils of our post-9/11 culture – the reluctant realization that home-grown terrorism can wear a friendly face, that mayhem via pressure cooker can be wrought by kids who ostensibly seem to be gliding through life. We can’t hope to thwart tragedies like Boston, to recognize the warning signs, unless we begin to understand what makes these people tick.
That cover image is not an act of glorification. It’s a factually accurate rendering of the enemy within, hiding in plain sight. It demands that we be more vigilant, and it’s a pity that CVS and Walgreens refuse to help the cause.
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