Like so many people, I spent the days after the Boston Marathon bombing glued to social media, the TV blaring in the background. I read everything I could about the Tsarnaev brothers, their parents, their friends, the detectives chasing them.  I learned who the victims were, where their families were standing when the blasts occurred, how close each runner was to the finish line.  Once the press had (finally) correctly identified the suspects, I started following a reporter on Twitter named Wesley Lowery, who, it seemed, was always about two feet away from the action, live-tweeting every gunshot. And on the night that police found Dzhokhar hiding in a boat in Watertown, I was up long after my husband and kids had gone to bed, unable to look away.  Hours were spent reading other people’s thoughts and watching instant replays of Tsarnaev’s arrest on CNN.  You could hear the excitement in the anchors’ voices as they speculated, misreported, corrected, and then speculated some more.  (This was History?) The only thing missing was a halftime performance by One Direction.

It wasn’t until the following week that I finally stopped looking. The demands and details of my daily existence gradually drew my attention away—my son’s horrific sleep apnea, the start of a new quarter at UC Riverside, where I teach.  One minute I was consumed with tragedy and terror and all things Tsarnaev; the next thing I knew, I was packing lunches and grading papers.

Then, yesterday morning, I noticed that Rolling Stone was trending.  Within minutes I had read some scathing status updates on Facebook.  Shame on Rolling Stone…That cover is disgustingprinted in poor tasteBoycott Rolling Stone!  The adrenalin kicked back in again. I instantly wanted more. I cycled through The Daily Beast, The New Yorker, The LA Times, and USA Today, careful to recheck Twitter every few minutes to keep up with the angry mob that seemed to be mobilizing there. By afternoon I had updated my Facebook status and posted a relevant tweet, hoping to insert myself into the dialogue.  I was shocked to discover that I didn’t agree with the masses. I loved the cover. In fact, I couldn’t stop looking at it.

To begin with, there is the beauty of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s face. Much has already been said about this.  That he seems so normal, so young—so vulnerable.  That the eyes are alluring, sexy even.  One wonders if he has any sense of  remorse or shame, if he misses his brother, Tamerlan, or if he is simply relieved to have him gone, relieved to face his trial and know that his ordeal is mostly over. I can almost feel that relief myself.  I want very badly to believe that Tamerlan was the evil one, a dark and controlling influence on his younger brother.  I want to believe that there is still some good in this boy, that in some way he, too, is a victim. The truth is that when the police were pulling him out of that boat, I felt sorry for him.

And yet the cover also evokes in me a feeling of horror that so many others have professed, both online and in the media.  Children grow up dreaming that they might someday be photographed for the cover of Rolling Stone, and here an alleged terrorist is receiving a brand of acknowledgement of which so many innocents dream.  Moreover, I find myself amazed that a single image, carefully placed, can have such a profound impact on so many people.

Is this right?  Have we been led astray here?  Has Jann Wenner done something awful?  I don’t think so.  Yes, Dzhokhar looks like a rock star, but it isn’t because Rolling Stone conducted a photo shoot where make-up artists helped him practice his come-hither pout and powdered the shine from his nose. No art director flanked him with bikini-clad supermodels or purposefully cast his face in mystery and shadow. The magazine isn’t trying to tell us how to feel about this kid one way or the other. The picture they chose to use has been featured in countless mainstream publications already.  Dzhokhar apparently took it himself.

It is an image, a face, that seems to generate conflicted emotions in people—myself included.  We pause to look at it and don’t know quite how to feel.  And it frightens us.  Does the fact that I’m offering this thought in the first place make you angry? Is it inappropriate? Is it something we shouldn’t think about? Is it #despicable #disrespectful #disgusting? Should we boycott any media that makes us uncomfortable?

Is it possible that we have already mythologized Dzhokar, touted by some as a Jim Morrison look-alike, with the Rolling Stone cover serving as a natural culmination? We tune in, tweet, involve ourselves in the creation of the killer’s persona, and in our various forms of outrage find ways to become a part of the story. There is in fact a long history of terrorists and serial killers becoming pop icons in our world. They don’t do it to themselves. 

The truth may hurt, but this doesn’t mean we should avert our eyes. I don’t believe we should blame the editors at Rolling Stone for forcing us to look at something that makes us angry or uncomfortable. What the magazine has done is hold a mirror to the culture, stopping us in the midst of our mania, holding us still, asking us to think about what it is we want so badly when we stare into Dzhokar’s eyes.

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CARLY KIMMEL teaches creative writing at the University of California, Riverside and lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two small children.

2 responses to “Killer Cover, or Why I’m Onboard 
with Rolling Stone

  1. Josh G. says:

    Refreshing to hear a counterpoint to all the righteous indignation and kneejerk outrage coming from armchair moralists.

  2. Hyori says:

    Amazing to see and read how many adults judge a book by it’s cover.

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