From the day we watch our first Disney movie as children, we begin to be indoctrinated with an idea which acts as a foundation for our world view: the hero/heroine of the story is always beautiful and evil can always be recognized by its ugliness. From Snow White to Sleeping Beauty, this reinforcement of the discredited science of physiognomy is omnipresent in nearly all our treasured childhood narratives. Movies like Aladdin go even further and add a healthy dose of orientalism to the beauty equals goodness nexus. That film – my personal favourite growing up, was condemned by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee due to the way the good guys had been drawn with light-skin and given western features and American accents, while the villains were dark-skinned, with middle-eastern accents and deformed facial features. Such fairytales are not only for kids though, society at large still injects the concept of beauty with undue significance, elevating actors, models and pop stars into the modern equivalent of the homeric hero.
However, last week, Rolling Stone Magazine disrupted this nexus by publishing a cover which featured suspected Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev looking like a beautiful rock-star. This cover caused huge amounts of controversy, something that I am sure Rolling Stone weren’t too displeased about, and that is an understandable reaction as the memory of the carnage of the Boston terrorist attack is still fresh in the mind. However, the accusation that Rolling Stone was trying to glamorize Tsarnaev’s actions miss the point. For me, the picture on the cover doesn’t say ‘look, isn’t it beautiful to be a terrorist’; it says ‘look, even a terrorist can be beautiful’. It says that in contrast to what we have been told since childhood, the bad guy can’t always be spotted by his beastly face and dirty beard.
This is not the way the cover has been interpreted though, it has instead been viewed as a celebration of the nineteen year old who is accused of murdering 4 people and injuring 264 others in the Boston Marathon bomb attack. Walgreens and CVS amongst other local retailers are refusing to sell the issue. They have accused the cover of disrespecting the victims and their families. It should be their names and faces that are known and on magazine covers as opposed to the bomber’s. While it is important not to slip into fetishized obsession with killers, the reason why people always show more interest in the mass murderers than victims is because we seek to understand how a person can be led into committing such actions. I think it would be also be disrespectful to the victims to just simplistically brand their suspected killer a monster and never enquire about their motivations. Adolf Hitler is more famous than anybody who died in the concentration camps, not because his life matters more than theirs but because what he did was so abnormal that it demands study, critique and remembering. Rolling Stone was trying to do something similar with their cover of Tsarnaev. It is clear when you read the article that it is not a sympathetic piece on Tsarnaev. It tries to make sense of his development from the picture on the front into the radical fundamentalist we see now, because if we don’t understand what leads people to such actions, how can we stop it from happening again? This doesn’t take away his responsibility for the tragedy of the Boston Marathon. To try and understand something is different from trying to excuse it and the public discourse should have enough nuance to appreciate that. Although, unfortunately nuance is conspicuous by its absence on Fox News as the below video shows:
Of course Michelle Malkin and her ilk like to continue to see the world in the simplistic, black and white morals of Disney cartoons (go to 1.50 to see her talk of ‘our war with ISLAM’) but there is a history of journalists trying to understand people who have brought suffering to many. TIME magazine has previously put people like Hitler, Stalin and the Ayatollah Khomeini as their person of the year and placed them on the cover. A further comparison could be when they placed Timothy McVeigh on their cover following the Oklahoma bombing. His act was just as repulsive as the one Tsarnaev is accused off. Yet it was important for his image to be seen as it showed the world that terrorists can come in all shapes sizes and colors. In a post 9/11 world where the idea that a terrorist means a bearded Arabs has become crystallized, Rolling Stone’s image of Tsarnaev does much the same and undermine lazy assumptions.
I understand the fears that this publicity may inspire copycat attacks. It is a problem with our world today that we idolize the famous no matter the reason for their fame. When Nietzsche killed God, he didn’t know that we would just replace the worship of the almighty with the worship of celebrity, which is all the more tantalizing because it seems to be achievable for anybody. Obviously Tsarnaev’s teeny-bopper fans show the problem that people have distinguishing between fame and infamy. However, what needs to change here is our blind adulation for anyone who has managed to achieve fame. If you are afraid that your child will now admire Tsarnaev just because he has been put on the cover of Rolling Stone, that says more about the child you are raising than it does about a magazine.
Of course all this is easy for me to say as I was not affected personally by the Boston bombings. It would of course be hard to take such a holistic view if I had lost anyone in the tragedy or been injured myself. I feel for those people whose lives have been destroyed by Tsarnaev and his brother. To them, as to all victims to terrorism, terrorists must look like mindless, violent monsters. However, the rest of us must remember that in the real world, monsters do not exist; monstrous acts are committed by people, people who look just like you or me.