#TwentySomething: Rolling Stone's The Boston Bomber
On the cover of the most recent issue of Rolling Stone, there’s a kid who’s 19, only three years younger than me, and the same age as my little brother.
The cover, as expected of the magazine, is quite glamorous. The kid has lightly tousled hair, he’s smirking just slightly, and he’s posing as if he could be in an alternative rock band or something. The photo is faded and grainy, like it was purposely styled that way.
Dzhokhar Tsarnev shares the spotlight with names of celebrities: Willie Nelson, Jay-Z, and new pop singer Robin Thicke — whose song “Blurred Lines” I’m kind of obsessed with right now. I have no idea who the other name on the front cover, Gary Clark Jr. is and I didn’t bother reading the article to find out.
Instead, I looked right past the superstar names, and I flipped right to the article about Dzhokar Tsarnev, “The Bomber: How a Popular, Promising Student was Failed by His Family, Fell Into Radical Islam and Became a Monster.”
It was probably one of the most unsettling pieces of journalism I’ve ever read.
The article, which was peppered with swear words, casual mentions of pot-smoking and the occasional pop culture reference, was about a kid who, along with his older brother, earlier this year set off two bombs during the Boston Marathon, killing three and injuring hundreds. But according to this article, “Jahar” was a fairly normal kid — actually even a good guy, for the most part.
The suggestion that this kid — because that’s all he was, a kid, someone I could have known or gone to school with — could be anything other than evil, and the somewhat celebrity-like portrayal on the cover really struck a nerve with people. The magazine was banned from some stores. The mayor of Boston wrote a letter against it. Dozens of my Facebook friends, many of whom normally shy away from political rants, posted outraged statuses about it.
“I wish people weren’t buying this,” commented one person on my Facebook, when I said I was reading the article.
Yet, I’m torn; I understand, even agree with, the outrage about the cover. But I also respect the article for what it is: a well-crafted, revealing piece of journalism. It’s that old cliche: “Don’t judge a book by the cover.”
I think the glam cover selection was poor. While the intent, I’m guessing, was probably not to give Jahar “celebrity status,” I fear that’s exactly what the effect was. He already has a “fan club,” and people are calling to “free Jahar.”
A lot of people see Rolling Stone as a music magazine only. That’s not the case, as there has been some really excellent hard news in this magazine (some of which was actually used as examples of good journalism in college). But when I looked at this cover, I thought Jahar looked like a brooding rock singer, not a bomber, regardless of what the headline says. Interestingly, this same photo ran on the cover of the New York Times in May, and I don’t remember any backlash. Probably because people see the two publications in very different ways: one for rockstars, the other for news.
There was an illusion that this magazine was going to praise the bomber, raise him up on a pedestal and treat him like the star he looks like. It really didn’t help that the rest of the cover was also very casual: “On the bus with Willie Nelson” was actually the first text that caught my eye, not the headline “The Bomber.” However, the story inside about the bomber was much less flip than the cover suggested.
I wish that people could get past the controversial image, and actually read the story before making a judgement call.
As a writer, I know the importance of having the free reign to tell a story. The author, Janet Reitman, covered all the bases: she interviewed scores of his friends, coaches and neighbors, former FBI agents and college professors. I like that the article leads with a victim of the bombing, who happened to be one of his high school coaches and mentors.
The coach was quoted in the article as calling Jahar a “good kid,” but at the same time, the coach says “apparently, he’s also a monster.”
This is the overall feeling of the article. Half of the article is praise for this kid, but as the story continues, it gets darker and darker.
One quote in particular stood out to me: “And yet a deeply fractured boy lay under that facade; a witness to all of his family’s attempts at a better life as well as to their deep bitterness when those efforts failed as their dreams proved unattainable.”
I find it interesting, yet unsettling, that the story tries to explain perhaps why this kid became a monster. It looks at his family life, his older brother’s influence (I thought that the story was much harsher on the older brother, who was described less favorably than Jahar), his interest in Islam, his struggles with money, school and assimilating.
The story quotes a friend of his: “He had all this stuff piled up on his shoulders, as well as college, which he’s having to pay for.”
But, I think, that so many people have come upon hard times — Jahar isn’t alone. While the story exposes all the layers that contributed to his ultimate act, ultimately, we don’t really know why he did what he did. Why it was him, versus some other troubled, angsty teen. Why some people can go through struggles and come out OK, but he didn’t.
Jahar “wore Pumas, had a great three-point shot and became a dedicated pot smoker.”
The article doesn’t apologize for or condone his behavior, of course. It simply tells a story, one that I think, no matter how disturbing, should be told.
While it didn’t sound like he was a kid I would have been friends with, at the same time, who knows? What if I had known him? What if he had been my friend? I can’t even imagine what I would have felt if I was that coach, that friend, turning on that TV to see his face as a villain. He’s just a kid, like me, but a kid that caused so much pain and terror.
I don’t think he deserves to be a celebrity. I wish Rolling Stone had chosen a less glamorous cover photo. But I do think the story is well-written — and it forces you to take a step back and reflect.
When I found out about the Boston bombing, I panicked. I had a lot of close friends in Boston. I called everyone I knew that could have been there.
It’s hard to wrap my mind around the fact that the terror I felt was caused by someone practically my own age.