Mark Joseph Stern in Slate:
Rolling Stone has unveiled its next cover, featuring a dreamy photo of Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and many people have erupted in outrage. Some critics say the image depicts Tsarnaev as a kind of celebrity; others believe it turns him into a martyr. Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick called the cover “out of taste,” while CVS has banned the issue “out of respect for the victims of the attack and their loved ones.” A smaller chain of New England stores is also boycotting the magazine for “glorify[ing] evil actions.” Never mind that the picture itself once appeared on the front page of the New York Times; when Rolling Stone uses it, they’re “tasteless,” “trashy,” and “exploitative.”
As the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple points out, the image is exploitative—but it isn’t just exploitative: It’s also smart, unnerving journalism. By depicting a terrorist as sweet and handsome rather than ugly and terrifying, Rolling Stone has subverted our expectations and hinted at a larger truth. The cover presents a stark contrast with our usual image of terrorists. It asks, “What did we expect to see in Tsarnaev? What did we hope to see?” The answer, most likely, is a monster, a brutish dolt with outward manifestations of evil. What we get instead, however, is the most alarming sight of all: a boy who looks like someone we might know.
Judging from the article itself, the image is disconcertingly apt. The story, a two-month investigative report by Janet Reitman, tracks Tsarnaev’s tragic, dangerous path from a well-liked student to a monster, focusing on the increasing influence of radical Islam. (The headline on the cover suggests as much; those immediately outraged by the picture might do well to read the accompanying text.)