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.