Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, cover boy

Emma Teitel on the real problem with this month’s Rolling Stone cover


Rolling Stone

By now you have probably seen shaggy haired, doe-eyed Dzhokhar Tsarnaev—otherwise known as one half of the alleged Boston marathon bombers–on the cover of this month’s Rolling Stone magazine. If so, you have also likely witnessed the accompanying furor: readers are canceling their subscriptions, corner stores are pulling magazines from newsstands, and the mayor of Boston, Thomas Menino—among others—has written a strongly-worded letter to Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner: “The survivors of the Boston attacks deserve Rolling Stone cover stories,” Menino wrote yesterday, “though I no longer feel that Rolling Stone deserves them.” Kelly Osbourne (who also graced the magazine’s cover as a teen, albeit for very different reasons) weighed in as well: “In case you failed to realize,” she tweeted, “#TheBostonBomber is a murderer not a band & has no place being on the cover of @rollingstone.”

The same could be said, however, about murdering lunatic, “not a band,” Charles Manson, who was also at one time, on the cover of Rolling Stone. In fact many non-bands have appeared on the magazine’s cover: Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Al Gore, Steve Jobs. Mythology aside, Rolling Stone is as much a political publication as it is an entertainment one. So why the uproar, especially over a photo already widely circulated by other news outlets– a photo that appeared on the cover of the New York Times no less?

The problem with this month’s Rolling Stone cover isn’t that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is on it. The problem is that he looks so undeniably cool: like a prepubescent Jim Morrison or a Jonas Brother gone rogue. He doesn’t look like a monster posing for a mug shot. He looks like he’s just gotten laid. And nobody wants to see him that way. He’s supposed to be sallow, not glowing, demonic, not angelic. There should be a massive red X running across his face. But there isn’t, and walking down the magazine aisle at a supermarket, you’d have to look twice to distinguish Tsarnaev’s boyish mug from all the other pretty faces. No wonder the stores pulled their copies.

A number of journalists, riffing off Leonard Cohen, have since come to Rolling Stone’s defense. It was Cohen who asked, famously, about Adolf Eichmann,“What did you expect? Talons?” On Tsarnaev, we wanted talons too; certainly not warm lighting and a pin-up-worthy picture. But evil isn’t always ugly, at least not in the way we expect, and Rolling Stone’s current cover and the story that accompanies it, apparently solidifies that fact. Here’s Mark Joseph Stern in Slate:

“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.”

It’s profound, I suppose–the banality of evil, and all that. But beyond the obvious spike in attention and possibly, sales for Rolling Stone, one has to ask: was the cover really prudent? Was the alleged “subversion of expectations” and a hint at the “larger truth” really worth the most unnerving truth of all? That whatever hell he is right now enduring, Tsarnaev will undoubtedly take enormous pleasure in this? After all, what better poster could an American monster hang on his jail cell wall? What better trophy could a teenage killer possibly acquire?

The problem with this month’s Rolling Stone cover isn’t that it glorifies terrorism (which it doesn’t), nor is it the hurt feelings of Menino and other like-minded Americans. The problem, in the end, isn’t even that the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing don’t like the Rolling Stone cover. It’s that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, that handsome devil, most certainly does.


Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, cover boy

  1. The author has already declared Tsarnaev of committing the crime even before he has been convicted of it by the court of law. Is that journalism?

    Additionally, Jahar will probably never see this cover as it is prohibited to send or give him anything related to the case.

  2. The problem is people are trying to find an excuse, any excuse, to blame this cover/mag….when that has nothing to do with it.

    A picture is worth a thousand words…..and this kid could have had a great future in image-conscious America….a model, a singer, an actor….and yet he’s going to die, or be imprisioned for life over some crackpot kid’s idea of fighting something.

    The question is….how and why did he go so far off the rails….right while living as the boy next door? He’s only 20 after all.

    No it isn’t that he wanted attention. Don’t trivialize things with pop psychology.

    He could easily have gotten attention …..and both of them expected to die anyway.

    He’s young and was fighting for a cause. Whether you agree with his cause or not.

    One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist.

    • Did you read the article on self-radicalized terrorists just published in Macleans? There are no real easy answers. These people are angry at what they see as “slights” toward themselves and thus they turn to a cause that gives them an opportunity to pay back the slight they perceive happened. That is why they are difficult to root out prior to the event. It isn’t really about a cause, it’s about being “pissed off” and finding a cause that allows you to vent your anger.

      • Pop psychology again. It also confuses street punks, dim-witted young men and bar drunks with actual guerrilla actions.

        • Popular psychology or not, one finds that very few people are willing to accept responsibility for their actions. They always find a way justify it and blame it on others. A cause is a noble justification.

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        • How convenient, to brush off a position you don’t agree with as “pop psychology” Anti-abortionists who shoot doctors who perform abortions, American rightwing extremists who think the government is trying to take their guns and KKKers all fight for causes and think they have real grievances (and some are young and good-looking too). Yet I doubt you’d automatically accord them any respect simply for “supporting a cause,” and I doubt even more you’d be comfortable seeing any of them on the cover of the Rolling Stone. (Just imagine the reaction of those who are defending the Tsarnaev cover if Anders Breivik had ever appeared on the cover). And guerrilla fighters may have more in common with street punks than you think–the former may differ mainly in having found a clear scapegoat to blame for their frustrations and shortcomings.

          • What?? There are kook grievances and genuine causes and it’s not hard to tell the difference.

            This was a simple photo. He just didn’t fit people’s stereotypes


            which was the whole point of the article

            Brevik is also conventionally good-looking and not remotely like a terrorist…..yet he’s a whacko

            The world has genuine reason to hate the US…and it’s not some local ‘hood thing.

          • To paraphrase an earlier post of yours, Emily, one person’s “kook grievance” may be another person’s “genuine cause.” It sounds like you differentiate between the two by jumping on board those that are fashionably anti-American, whatever the real merits of the position (Dzhokar has been described as having no real ideas of his own and merely following his less photogenic older brother like a puppy dog). And people have been hit over the head with the “banality of evil” trope often enough that they’re not terribly shocked by good-looking killers.

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          • Don’t be disingenuous: there are lots of disasters caused by different people and nationalities, but some causes are definitely more fashionable than others. Ever hear of radical chic?

            This “controversy” over Dzoktar’s looks was created mainly in the minds of his defenders (who, ironically, may be the ones who are most affected by his appearance–I doubt there would be any “free Jahar” movement if he looked like a toad.)

          • Ahhh you have confused me with one of your pet causes.

            Sorry, not a leftie

            PS…there are lots of groups trying to get different people free….appearance doesn’t matter

    • Just a reminder. This young lad put a pressure cooker full of nails and explosives beside an 8 year old kit.

      There is no understanding needed.

      • Really? Then how do we prevent it happening again?

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      • When you have to lie, you have no case.

  3. Emma, I don’t think there is a hell and you certainly don’t believe that either. Anyway, what I really want to say is, good on you for citing Mark Joseph Stern. Some of the most thoughtful, rational writing is coming from Slate these days. It makes liberalism almost appealing. Aspire, Macleans.

  4. I think people are upset, not by the picture, but that it is part of the magazine’s clear effort to paint him as a victim.

    When they put Manson on the cover the headline was about ‘the most dangerous man alive’, not about how others ‘failed’.him.

    • the cover text pretty clearly uses the word monster.

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    • this is either awesome or insane, and salute you either way!

    • You do realize that the picture is NOT of Justin Trudeau and more importantly, Justin Trudeau does NOT want to be mistaken for the individual in the picture as he might be shot on sight by accident were that to happen in the US?

  6. His face is itself a slap in the face of the expectations and biases of people. You make that point. He offends because their beliefs and blind prejudices are affronted: “Why doesn’t he look angry, ugly, dark evil?” That’s what we expect.

    • This is why I think the cover is brilliant.

    • Frankly, those who are defending the cover are the ones who are most obsessed with his looks. The public has been exposed to enough stories about charismatic serial killers to get that good-looking people can do bad things.

    • This is just plain stupid. This picture, this face was all over the rest of the media as well. Should we engage in censorship to spare the feelings of a couple individuals? It’s good to be compassionate and open-minded, just take care not to let your brain fall out.

      • Wow, just wow. Aren’t you the humanitarian. “Should we engage in censorship to spare the feelings of a couple individuals?”. Wow. I never expected a reply like that. First of all, sensitivity and respect for the victims is not censorship, and second of all, wow. You’re really something. Maybe someday your family will be blown up in an instant, and I’m sure you won’t mind, you’ll just brush it off, you sensitive, humanitarian, tough guy.
        I know there are lots of people like you out there, but most of them are not so up front about it.

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          • Another humanitarian. In your case, I’m not surprised.

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          • 54 people were shot to death in Chicago during the Zimmerman trial.

            Such is life.

          • Are you senile? You appear to have wandered off into some other conversation.

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        • This is more BS. SCF, “stuff” happens every day. Humans as a group need to be able to move on, even if each tragedy is grieved by the individuals it actually affects. Showing the face of a mass murderer is routine. Why are you singling out this incident, and this magazine? Your brain is falling out.

          • OK, families being blownup is “stuff”, in your world. And apparently putting a bomber’s photo on a magazine cover is “moving on”. Wow. Keep it coming.

            Here’s the answer to your other question…

            But really, it’s your answer to me that I found unpleasantly surprising, not your opinion of the mag cover.

          • Wow, just wow. Wow. Wow. Wow.

          • Keep the self-righteousness coming. What we do know is that bleating about it will not change media behaviour one iota, and thank goodness for that.

  7. If he was butt-faced ugly or plain like his brother he wouldn’t have been given the honor, because few of RS’s readership would’ve been interested in buying a magazine with an un-photogenic criminal cover model.

    This speaks volumes about the choices the editors made. Good on the people who objected.

  8. The only thing I don’t like about this article is the presumption of guilt before due process. Not defending him. Just keeping a check on civil liberties. But not enough to stir much of a reaction from me, except a “too bad”. But as long as the public continues to ‘react’ so intensely, he will continue to make headlines. JS.

  9. It is about selling magazines. The Rolling Stone is in the business of being provocative and getting attention. This controversy plays right into their hands. Remember, in this business good attention and bad attention are all the same thing….they result in dollars for advertisers. I highly doubt the people who will want to censor the magazine are selling their products in it.

  10. The cover was only meant to draw attention, it’s in no way “glorifying” when it clearly says monster, bomber etc. What is of great concern though, because of the fact people are so media/internet focused, chances of a fair trial are almost nil. The (american) media has already gave a conviction, “innocent until proven guilty” has become a hollow phrase. My impression is that overhere in Europe we tend to look a little more ‘balanced’ at cases like this as a whole, including this one.

  11. No one seems to recall that Hitler was on the cover of Time in the mid ’30s denoting their choice of Man of the Year.

  12. Its curiously interesting that this cover shd generate nationwide outrage; when the likes of Berkowitz, Dahmer, Bundy, Rader and other killers have made it to the cover of news magazines without as much as a whimper.

    • They made the cover of news magazines,not a magazine that is mainly known for promoting pop stars.

  13. Displaying Tzarnaev on the cover like a rock idol is controversial, though it’s not gratuitous. One could argue that terrorism, like rock n roll, is largely about young men and how they find meaning and mission in life. How talented young men like Tzarnaev become our society’s most frightening adversaries is a completely appropriate subject for Rolling Stone. The cover is an artful, however sickening, reminder that youth is a huge part of the terrorism threat.

  14. Teitels article is just so accurate it’s scary. Couldn’t reconcile my belief in free speech
    with the disturbing effect the cover page of Rolling Stone magazine was having on me personally, let alone thousands of other readers. The magazine was wrong to have
    elevated the status of the accused to this level. It was beyond provocative, it was just

  15. A crude and utilitarian argument at best. Don’t give the terrorist a chance to see himself as a non-terrorist. Why not? To make him suffer? And what makes us think that an unglamorous terrorist would be less pleased at the coverage?

    There’s a reason why the cover might be inappropriate and why the artwork is poorly rationalized by the publishers. There’s also a reason why the publisher went with it, beyond the controversy. Consult someone who knows the theory of journalism for the answer to that.

  16. Tsarnaev face is at once the face of a young adult and also a terrorist. They come in all shapes, sizes and both genders. If you run around “looking” for the face of a terrorist you need to see them for what they are; our neighbour, our friend, the guy at the grocery store. Instead of screaming that RC put HIS actual face on the cover people should look at the caption below it and then read the article. Isn’t freedom of the press and freedom of speech what democrasies fight for? Tsarnaev isn’t an ugly worm. Deal with it.

  17. My problem is in this instance, and in others like it, that we seem to always remember the name of the perpetrator (sorry ALLEGED perpetrator) and are willing to give him or her his fame but forget the victims. I wish we spent as much time looking at the faces of those he murdered and reading about their hopes and dreams.

  18. Putting DT on the cover was the wrong decision, and a desperate move by Jann Wenner. My problem with comparing this with the Manson cover is that in 1969, RS was a trusted source for an alternative perspective on current events. The Manson Family was a product of the counter-culture, just as RS was, so the mag had an obligation to weigh in with a perspective the mainstream news outlets wouldn’t touch. This may have been RS’s intent with DT (I haven’t read the piece), but putting the pic on the cover smacks of sheer exploitation in this day and age when RS is regarded as just another entertainment industry promotional tool. If I had a subscription, I would cancel it, although I stopped reading RS in the early ’90s.

  19. The guy doesn’t resemble Osama bin laden so he must be a misled confused kid, right?,
    A terrorist is dangerous regardless of how appealing his face is. The macleans article reads in part ‘ He looks like he’s just gotten laid ‘ . O.K. then Emma.
    Tsarnaev is a good looking young man. In the picture he looks harmless and there is a innocence about him, I don’t see just laid but whatever.

    • His apologists actually seem to be more influenced by his looks than his detractors (who are all supposedly furious that he’s not ugly).

  20. You’ve twice stated what “the problem” with the cover is. Neither time did you mention the real problem, which is that a magazine that strives to be taken seriously as a news source, describes a suspect not yet tried, as “The Bomber.” Fortunately for Rolling Stone, no one appears to have noticed that shoddy attempt at journalism, in the light of a fetching cover photo. That, at least, seems entirely appropriate for Rolling Stone.

  21. i cant believe the comments i am reading on here!!! The author clearly doesnt think its a problem to have this terrorists pic on the cover of this magazine! I have a news flash for the media “it is disgusting on too many levels, mainly he is glorified and looks handsome, he is a killer”, ( and who gives a rat ass if Manson was on there, that wasnt politically correct either)!! Most people are/were under the assumption the Rolling Stones magazine’s cover is reserved for exceptionally talented, worthy individuals. I hope they dont sell one more issue.

  22. i dont think people even care if they put him on rolling stones mag cover i think there mad just because he looks good instead of looking like a terrorist . maybe if he didnt look good no one would start this drama. but he is so get over it.