Last week, Rolling Stone magazine released its August 1 issue, and like so many of the covers published by the aging publication, it features an attractive young man, his eyes staring directly into the camera from behind a tussle of stylish dark hair. It’s the kind of image that young girls post on their walls. But unlike other covers, however, this young man is not a rock star or movie icon. The man pictured on the cover of Rolling Stone is Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving suspect in the April 15, 2013, bombing of the Boston Marathon, which killed three and maimed 300. Below the picture was the teaser for the 11,000 word cover story inside: “How a popular, promising student was failed by his family, fell into radical Islam, and became a monster.”
As usual, no one bothered to read Janet Reitman’s story before commenting on the cover. From the left, right, and middle, Rolling Stone was condemned for “glorifying” terrorism or painting a sympathetic picture of Tsarnaev. This in itself is not particularly surprising. Most online stories are appended with comments that make it plain that no one who uses the internet actually bothers to read much more than a headline, let alone a piece longer than a status update on Facebook.
Reitman’s piece is a detailed look at Tsarnaev’s life, from his family’s emigration from Russia through his successful assimilation into American life and then his eventual turn to violence. And that is a second unsurprising part of the problem. Americans seem to be unable to deal with themselves and the world around them, and, more often than not, they react with irrational anger toward anything that upsets their fragile worldview. We are like a petulant child, unable to understand sometimes that we are being called out for doing something wrong, and not merely being affronted without cause.
This is not a “liberal” or “conservative” issue. Many on each side of our limited political system were “offended” by this latest “outrage.” This is a problem that affects almost all of us to some degree. We point fingers and overreact when we are asked to consider how our nation may in some way be at least partially responsible for causing a person to turn against us.
That notion is far too uncomfortable for many of us to deal with, so we merely turn on the TV or take to the internet to decry this latest “outrage” when tasked with understanding modern American discontents, whether they are violent or not. Everything must remain under the veneer of business as usual, with all of us happy and content. Unfortunately, we cannot afford to do that any longer.
Since 2001, America has had an opportunity to take a long, hard look at itself and make some serious choices about our role in the world and how we interact with other nations. Instead, we proceeded to invade two of them, leaving tens of thousands dead, while today we continue to carry out quasi-legal covert and drone operations in scores of others, occasionally against citizens from our own country. And through it all, we have had the temerity to insist that the world must understand why we are doing what we are doing, even though we have never dared understand the motives of those who attacked us.
President George W. Bush’s statement that terrorists “hate us for our freedoms” was then, as it is now, a gross misstatement. The events of Sept. 11, 2001, should have been a wake-up call for Americans. After all, we finally experienced in our own backyard the sort of violence that occurs on a daily basis around the world — often at our own hands. Instead, we turned that tragedy into a doubling down of some of our most disturbing foreign policies. We were never able to look at ourselves in the mirror and ask the hard questions about our way of life or, more importantly, what that way of life means to other people — and not just internationally but right here at home.
Many, it seems, were quick to condemn Rolling Stone for dishonoring the Boston Marathon victims with their cover story on Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. However, we do not dishonor those innocent people killed and injured in terrorist attacks by attempting to make sense of the world around us. We do, however, dishonor them and all future victims when we are not courageous enough to honestly examine not just those who would hurt us, but how we hurt ourselves as well.