Viewpoint: We Need to Learn More About Young Men Like the Boston Bomber, Not Less

To boycott Rolling Stone's cover story is to say that we are unwilling, as a society, to cope with difficult questions.

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ROLLING STONE / HANDOUT / EPA
ROLLING STONE / HANDOUT / EPA

The knee jerk boycotts in response to this week’s Rolling Stone cover story about Boston Marathon bomber, Dzhokhar ‘Jahar’ Tsarnaev, are helping no one. If we want to break the cycle of mass homicide and terror, we need to face the personal histories of men like the Tsarnaev brothers in all their discomfiting complexity and horror, and this includes not only putting up with attractive photos but also giving more subtle thought to their circumstances. The anguished reaction to the article—”I just want to throw up,” proclaimed conservative commentator Michelle Malkin on Fox News— taps a deep vein of revulsion in American culture toward the possibility that mass murder can in any way be explainable. It feels distasteful and outrageous to seek “answers” to something as awful as mass terror. But to understand the terror is not to forgive or forget it.

(MORE: Four Reasons Why Rolling Stone‘s Cover is Upsetting)

When we distance ourselves from our shared humanity and treat mass murderers as removed from our daily lives, we don’t have to examine the more prosaic factors that can contribute to the violence in our midst: bad genes, child neglect, untreated mental illness, too-easy access to assault weapons, political and religious indoctrination, and the like. Of course, the great majority of people in depressing circumstances do not become a mass murderer, but few mass murderers don’t have a laundry list of extenuating circumstances or grievances. We can abhor them, but we can’t completely ignore them.

Some have suggested that the Rolling Stone editors simply wanted to boost sales. This misses the point. The cover photo, a self-portrait that had actually been in circulation for months, strikes a nerve precisely because there was no trick, no deception to either white-wash or glorify the murders. On the contrary, the story was written to reveal, not conceal, the true nightmare of April 15th. Normalcy is part of the story of the Boston Marathon bombers; we can’t run away from that. Dzhokhar was a young man who took pictures of himself, just like millions of teenagers. There was some genuine goodness in his heart, according to reasonable people who knew him best, and he experienced pain and trauma in his young life too. Acknowledging these facts doesn’t automatically label a person a love struck ‘fan’ or a disgrace to humanity.

(MOREThe Overwhelming Maleness of Mass Homicide)

It shouldn’t be un-American to confront these issues, and defacto censorship – which is what companies like CVS are doing by refusing to sell the issue – is actually disrespectful to the victims and their families. To push the story away is to say that we are unwilling, as a society, to cope with difficult questions. It’s an admission that we are simply afraid to know too much, afraid, literally, to see too much. It’s a public declaration that we can deal with a demon like Osama Bin Laden, whose middle aged, sickly face was plastered on magazine covers for years, because he wasn’t actually ‘one of us.’ But to chronicle the life of a homegrown kid, buffeted by parental abandonment, financial debt, increasing cultural isolation and despair? That cuts close to the bone.

Indeed, deep in the Rolling Stone article is this unsettling nugget from Brian Glyn Williams, Professor of Islamic Studies at U. Mass Dartmouth: “To me, (the Tsarnaev story) is classic diasporic reconstruction of identity: ‘I’m a Chechen, and we’re fighting for jihad, and what am I doing? Nothing.’ It’s the way some Irish-Americans used to link Ireland and the IRA – they’d never been to Northern Ireland in their lives, but you’d go to certain parts of Southie in Boston, and all you see are donation cans for the IRA.”

That’s a hard comparison to stomach if you are a Bostonian, but we need to get over our nausea. We can’t wipe out terror by removing magazines that might offend us from our shelves. Many of the post-9/11 terrorist plots and attacks have been planned and executed by citizens of Western countries on Western soil. This is our reality and probably our future, too. Stories like Dzhokhar’s can give us powerful insights into the mind of these disaffected young people straddling two very different identities and ways of life. We should read as much as we can about them.

93 comments
brooklynite4321
brooklynite4321

Whether you like it or not, Tsarnaev is still a SUSPECT! He hasn't been convicted of anything in a court of law. And yet Time is happy to state outright that he is the Boston Marathon bomber. Period. 

The fact that he probably is the bomber is beside the point. He hasn't been convicted. What part of this does Time not understand?

Unbelievable. Say goodbye to your credibility, morons.

Leftcoastrocky
Leftcoastrocky

"To boycott Rolling Stone's cover story is to say that we are unwilling, as a society, to cope with difficult questions."


You are absolutely correct.  Those urging boycott are misguided, to say the least.  (If we just crawl into a hole and cover our ears, nothing bad will happen.)



JLogan
JLogan

TIME, The point was NEVER the article. The point was the glamour shot of the terrorist to promote a magazine. If a picture of Boston's grief,  or its heroes or its fallen had been on the cover, the magazine would have still sold. The editors and publisher did this on purpose and will never understand the pain of this photo unless they face this type of grief. 

rpearlston
rpearlston

That's about the story (which I agree ought to be understood), but the revulsion is mainly about the cover.  At the very lest, if RS was so insistent on having a picture of this piece of #)$*) on their cover, it ought to have been a photo of him in an orange jumpsuit and shackles.

BobBrown1
BobBrown1

The article is nausiating. Most of the reports which I've read focused on the fact that in many ways Mr. Tsarnaev was a normal young man in most ways - that there was nothing highly unusual about him. He was a college student, he was on the wrestling team, he dated regularly and he enjoyed sitting in sports bars sucking down beers.

Early on, many in the media tried to portray the brothers as allienated American youth. The new 21st century version of Holden Caulfield, in J. D. Salinger's classic coming of age novel, "The Catcher In The Rye." Nothing could be further from the truth as we later found out when many of the facts came to light. The brothers were not examples of allienated American youth. These were cold-blooded Islamist murderers.

They were emphatically not the jihadists in the rye.

Secondly, this article erects a straw man to slap around. No one is suggesting that Rolling Stone doesn't have the right to place a murderous, racist terrorist on its cover in the guise of a rock star - they have that right. But the citizenry of this country also have the right to bocott anything we find morally objectionable. It is my hope that they are boycotted out of existence.

Finally, the next time Rolling Stone publishes one of their periodic hit pieces, let's remember that very few "greedy capitalists" have sunk to this level to market a product.

 www.TheCamelsHumpBlog.com

Yago32
Yago32

Excellent Article. We need more articles like this, protecting the First Amendment with reason and intelligence. What scares me the most is that the Government is not anymore the one censorship, but the public. A Twisted evolution of national denial. 

Ptl
Ptl

Rolling stone is reveling in the attention caused by the cover photo. No amount of retail shops canceling the sale of mag will have an impact. A Boycott of the product of RS magazines first 3 full page advertisers is something every offended Bostonian can get behind. That might also make RS think twice about a provocative photo on its cover. After all, it about selling magazines to sell ads, to sell product. Advertisers not interested in being at the business end of a good old fashioned boycott. Remember the Boston tea party rebellion?

rpearlston
rpearlston

@Ptl Please define "provocative photo" for us.  The "provocative" feature or this photo is the ID of the subject.  

But think back a few decades.  One of the last appointments John Lennon had on 8 December 1980 was with Annie Leibovitz for a photo shoot for the cover of Rolling Stone.  The one chosen for the cover showed a completely nude Lennon, lying on one side, and snuggling up to a fully clothed Yoko Ono.  Too many people would call that one provocative, too. 

edmundsingleton
edmundsingleton

I am not going to read your book about how to cure cancer because I don't like the cover...

kristineedscats
kristineedscats

I have no problem with learning all about this boy and the path that led him to become a mass murderer.  It is always strange to me that a news site posts anything but a mug shot, but this sexually-charged magazine is turning him into a hot rock star on a magazine that sensationalizes rock stars.  They do it to sell covers to all the girl groupies and wanta be groupies that surround serial/mass killers in this countries. http://www.mamamia.com.au/news/boston-bomber-teenage-heartthrob/  They want to capitalize on the sexualily of a mass murders who helped injured over 200 people.  This is sick.


SGRated
SGRated

We do not need to know about his upbringing or the trauma he might have experienced from poor parenting. What we do need to know are his motives which he made clear several times, that the Boston victims had been 'collateral damage' like Muslims had been in the war. It is only too easy for us to hide behind the general outrage, label him as a product of circumstance, and refuse to see that this terrorist wanted to carry a message. This is not to say that what he did was in any possible way just. It is however to say that we must eschew the biographical, which gives him undeserved attention, and discuss the political.

rpearlston
rpearlston

@SGRated But why would the biographical not drive the political?  WHen you can answer that question, you'll see why much of what your wrote is nonsense.

DebraAnnBall
DebraAnnBall

The author, and most of the country, needs to read a book written in the 1950s by a man named Eric Hoffer, with the title 'The True Believer' You can get it at any used bookstore for a $1 and it will tell you everything you need to know about fanatics.  Hoffer studied how people were drawn to the Nazi movement.  What he found is that there is a certain type of person who, when faced with their own personal shortcomings, will turn to violent causes and hurting people as a way to merge their personalities into the group and achieve recognition and status. It NEVER has anything to do with the 'cause' or even what the 'cause' supposedly believes in.  The 'cause' only gives them something to join and become a part of and a way to act out those frustrations on others.  These type of persons also are supremely selfish with little or no empathy for the sufferings of others. So when we try to analyze what 'we' supposedly did wrong to 'create' these people we are missing the point entirely.  These kind of people are found in all countries, all religious faiths, all political groups and throughout time; whether it is Timothy McVeigh, or the Columbine shooters, or the killer of all those children at their school; the Taliban, or WHATEVER, it doesn't matter. And they have been around throughout history; in my State, Michigan, in the 1920s, a disgruntled man blew up a school; still one of the largest mass murders on the books.  What we need to be doing is stop trying to think that we caused their problems or that we need to solve their problems. Does anyone seriously think the petty problems of the two Boston bombers (before the attack) were worse than the problems their victims have to endure now? We need to do more research on what causes people to become this way; how much is hereditary and how much is parental upbringing. Research is suggesting a very large genetic component, exacerbated by lousing parenting. I don't need to understand their 'causes'. I don't need to fix the things that frustrate them. I want to see more of my tax dollars go to support research to figure out what has gone wrong in their heads and what to do about it to protect all of us who actually care about other people.

rpearlston
rpearlston

@DebraAnnBall What you're talking about is sociopaths.  Do you not think that there already is ongoing research trying to answer the questions that you pose?  

BTW, a lot of the the science of the '50's has been discredited in the last 60 years or so.  I wouldn't go about hawking a book based on the research of that era in any subject because in every field, it's so badly out-of-date.  THe more applicable reading material is a chapter specifically on the making of terrorists in the 2012 book "The Myth of the Muslim TIde", a book that also addresses the fallacies to which too many Americans subscribe regarding immigration in general.  It should be available in your local public library system, which means that you won't have to pay even a dollar to read it.

anti-government
anti-government

This incident shows the limits of "free speech" in America today. The government isn't censoring Rolling Stone: the commercial marketplace that will do anything to maintain the status quo is attempting to strangle Rolling Stone for presenting an anti-US person as just that, a person. We here in America like our villains to be painted in black and white colors, mostly so we don't have to see them as real people with real points of view. We can't survive as a free society if government or the marketplace can strangle free speech or the willingness to see those who oppose us as human.

It's hypocritical beyond belief for anyone in America to complain about anyone else using bombs to further their aims when we Americans have killed far more people with bombs than all other countries and terrorists in world history put together. In one night (February 1, 1945), our firebombs roasted over 100,000 civilians in their beds in a famous china manufacturing city (not an armament making city) named Dresden. We killed over 100,000 the night we firebombed Tokyo too, and killed more than 100,000 each at Hiroshima and Nagasaki if you count those who died later from radiation poisoning. In four days, we probably killed HALF A MILLION civilians with bombs. It has been estimated that WE KILLED MORE THAN 10 MILLION CIVILIANS with our bombs during World War II, and killed millions more in Korea, Vietnam, and other nations in which we have attempted to exercise control. WHO ARE WE TO DEHUMANIZE PEOPLE WHO KILL CIVILIANS WITH BOMBS WHEN WE DO IT MORE THAN ANYONE?

DebraAnnBall
DebraAnnBall

@anti-government  

Simple principal; two wrongs don't make a right. you are correct; it was wrong to kill civilians in those wars. But I didn't make the decision to do that and neither did anyone on this page, I'm guessing. All we can do is vote for people who we hope won't make decisions like that. And not do those things ourselves.