The boy on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine doesn't look like a rock star to me. Or a terrorist, for that matter. He looks like a normal kid, more handsome than most, who took a picture of himself in the way that millions of American teenagers do.
And that is precisely the point. Accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (nicknamed "Jahar") was a normal kid -- until he wasn't.
That's the story that author Janet Reitman tells inside, as summed up on the cover line: "How a Popular, Promising Student Was Failed by His Family, Fell Into Radical Islam and Became a Monster." And that's the story the cover illustrates.
Jahar stands accused of detonating two homemade pressure cooker bombs at the marathon's finish line on April 15, killing three people including an 8-year-old and maiming more than 260 others. His older brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, died in the aftermath, but Jahar escaped, prompting a lockdown of the Watertown neighborhood where he was believed to be hiding. He was found there, wounded and under a canvas in a backyard boat, on which he apparently had scrawled a jihadi manifesto. On July 10 he entered a plea of not guilty. It will be interesting to hear his explanation of the writing.
Outraged critics say the Rolling Stone cover glamorizes a terrorist, giving him celebrity treatment akin to that of Jay-Z or Madonna. They are urging a boycott of the magazine to send the message that we don't cotton to glorifying killers.
There are a few chinks in the outrage, however. One, we do glorify killers in our culture, all the time, from the fictional Tony Soprano and Michael Corleone to the real-life "Dapper Don" John Gotti and ex-mobster Whitey Bulger, who became a folk hero of sorts during his 16 years on the lam and who is currently on trial charged with 19 murders.
The difference here is that the Boston Marathon victims were innocents, not fellow mobsters and their associates. And the alleged killers were the embodiment of America's worst nightmare, self-radicalized jihadists out to destroy "the American way of life."
Even so, our national propensity to glorify killers still wouldn't excuse it in this case if that's what the magazine was doing, but I don't see any of that on the cover or inside. All I see is the face of a kid who went horribly wrong, and a thorough examination of how it happened. Why should that be so intolerable?
The only possible answer is context. When The New York Times ran the very same photo on its front page in May, I don't remember calls to punish the newspaper with a boycott -- probably because readers expect to see news there.
But Rolling Stone normally features stories about superstar musicians, actors and other pop culture figures, so some people will project glam status onto any face on its cover. But the magazine has also run plenty of in-depth pieces and interviews on the infamous, notably Charles Manson and O.J. Simpson, sometimes drawing similar protests.
What are its editors to do, then, with a story like this? Keep Jahar's face off the cover even though he's the subject of the anchor story inside? Draw fangs on his mouth and horns on his head so that readers know this is a bad guy? If only evil telegraphed itself so clearly.
Our nightmares may be of drooling zombies and horrible beasts whose appearances reflect malevolence. But in real life, the most dangerous characters don't necessarily look the part. Sometimes they just blend in with the rest of ordinary society, and no one is the wiser. For every wild-eyed Charles Manson, there are far more average-looking killers like Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who committed mass murder at Columbine High School in 1999, and any number of their notorious successors.
I read Ms. Reitman's entire article and there is nothing worshipful or glamorizing about it. On the contrary, it's an important and well-reported story that traces Jahar's downward spiral. He was a happy and well-adjusted kid who came to the U.S. as a boy and grew to appreciate much of what this country had to offer.
But after high school, things started to go wrong. He hated the college he was attending, his father was increasingly embittered by his inability to get ahead, the parents split up and his father returned to Russia, leaving the increasingly radicalized Tamerlan in charge.
Then his mother left as well, and Jahar was basically orphaned just when he needed grounding the most. He found it in the brother he idolized, and appears to have joined Tamerlan in his diabolical plot. The friends and teachers interviewed for the article are still having trouble believing the Jahar they knew could have done this, but they've come to realize there was a lot about him they didn't know.
Now they do, and so will anyone who reads the article. I highly recommend doing so. It's a great piece about a disturbing story, worth every minute of your time. I doubt you'll come away thinking Jahar was being glamorized in the slightest, but you may find yourself wondering why anyone called for a boycott in the first place.
Sally Kalson is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1610).