Rolling Stone's Tsarnaev Cover Is Much More Clever Than You Realize: Here's Why
Yesterday the internet pretty much exploded in rage about the Rolling Stone cover of Dzokhar Tsarnaev, the suspected Boston Bomber. To recap the controversy, when the cover was announced, CVS and another native local grocery store flat out said they won’t stock that issue of the magazine. The mayor of Boston said he was outraged. The Boston Globe said the magazine was an "act of irresponsibility."
I support their choice on the cover. In fact, I’ll go further: I feel it’s brilliantly executed. It’s a reminder, and a good one, that wolves like Tsarnaev often wear sheep’s clothing. And that reminder, in and of itself is immensely valuable.
I feel this cover is deeply misunderstood. People saw the cover, made a knee-jerk reaction, and let their emotions take over. The rage over the article isn’t really about his appearance. It’s about a deep seated, psychological reaction to it, which bears much closer examination.
A bomber can dress just like a rock star and blend in to the crowd and he doesn't have to look like a hideous monster, although that’s what we’d like to believe, because it’s so much more comfortable. I think many more people would prefer for him to look like a monster because he would be easier to identify that way. It wasn’t uncomfortable for us to see James Holmes appear in court with his flaming red hair and staring, thousand yard stare; there was so clearly something deeply wrong with him. Mental illness is disturbing by nature.
But Tsarnaev? He blends in. And that’s why so many people are outraged by that cover, although they’re having trouble articulating it. Rolling Stone, in choosing that picture, is deeply disturbing us, but they've chosen to do it on purpose. They are doing it because they’re showing us that anyone, from the kid next door you hire to mow your lawn, to the kid who takes your movie tickets next time you catch an afternoon showing, could be planning something nefarious.
But look at little closer. The outrage people feel from looking at that cover isn't coming from Rolling Stone. Deep down, it isn’t Rolling Stone that’s done anything shocking or outrageous by publishing a picture that shows Dzokhar Tsarnaev in a disheveled, unkempt pose, similar to one a rock-star might choose. The words they put beside the photo are entirely appropriate. They labeled him “The Bomber.” The outrage that so many people are feeling from viewing that cover springs from the deep discomfort they feel on looking at it because it comes along subconsciously, with a psychological disconnect. How do you identify a psychopath when he looks just like the very attractive kid next door?
As a species, we are biased towards the attractive. We don’t like to admit this, but it’s true. We are oriented towards the young, the beautiful. Entire magazines, huge advertising budgets exist to capture, to exploit this tendency of ours. It’s a huge part of our psychological makeup. As a result, we can’t help but feel that attractive people don’t do hideous things. Our conscious mind may tell us that Tsarnaev bombed the marathon but something in the subconscious is willing to contradict that, because of that pre-programmed bias. And that irritates us, most of us, anyway. We know what he’s done. It’s a human exploit, a hack into our vanity. We don’t want to admit this fact, but it is true. You've been mind hacked when you look at that Rolling Stone cover, and you don't like it.
To look at that photo, subconsciously the viewer has to confront the fact that there’s something deeply, fundamentally wrong about some young, immensely attractive teenager who allegedly, premeditatedly bombed a marathon, killing several Americans and permanently maiming and wounding scores more. Looking at that picture of Tsarnaev, is to simultaneously contemplate the bombings and to realize the baby-faced teenager on the cover was responsible, but also to have to deal with the psychological disconnect that someone so attractive would do such a horrible thing. And then, perhaps, for you, as for me, memories of the photos of the victims pop up in the mind; blood rushing down their faces, as they were rushed to the hospital. You think of the lost limbs, the hours spent in reconstructive surgery, perhaps their new lives in wheelchairs. Irreversible nerve pain. Their lives will never be the same. It’s difficult not to feel a fundamental need for retributive action. But when we look for someone to blame, we look for a reason, we look for a ‘bad guy,’ and we see an image that doesn't quite fit the bill. In fact, the image Rolling Stone presents us is so far off the mark as to be ludicrous in its complete and utter disparity from what we feel a bomber ‘should’ look like.
But this is exactly why a truthful picture is needed. America is at a fundamental junction in history. We’re sheering off into factions, at times, seeming to sheer off into red and blue, with a rift that seems to be growing year by year. We have a failing educational system, starting with day-care, which many working parents are struggling to even afford, all the way up to college, where the tuition rates for students at even in-state colleges are sky-rocketing, and many students are graduating from 4 year institutions with such a massive debt load that it may take as many as 25 or 30 years for them to fully pay back all of their debt. Some, in fact, may never manage it. Because the debt cannot be discharged through bankruptcy, even in cases of disability, it’s been compared to a system of indentured servitude. We’re struggling to educate in general, but during the process of education, across the board, we’re failing to teach students the fundamental skill of critical thinking, which used to be the foundational bedrock of the educational system itself, and which was what was hammered into our educational system 75 years ago. It’s what set us apart as a world leader in science and technology, and frankly, it’s where we are now falling down.
Because we now have knee-jerk reactions, we attempt to censor the press, we don't want to talk through or think of the implications of what censoring the press would actually do. People are actually advocating pulling (and have pulled) this magazine from store shelves? Because they are threatened by Tsarnaev's appearance? The absurdity of this is flooring. It feels remarkably like a throwback to the book 1984 by George Orwell, when books, magazines, and all media needed to be altered by the state to fit what the state found "currently acceptable." Tsarnaev's appearance is not currently acceptable. Hence, censored.
We no longer think critically, as a society. We look at a magazine cover and have a collective knee-jerk reaction which results in a mayor of a city and the heads of corporations yanking a magazine from their shelves based on the cover, without reading the article and evaluating its contents. We are no longer able to see a magazine cover and understand that an image may challenge our pre-conceived beliefs of what ‘a terrorist’ might look like; that he may look young and handsome and yes, he may resemble a rock star, but that that fact is not a reason to ban the magazine, or to ask Rolling Stone to change the cover. Such a reaction is the reaction of a repressive, close-minded state, one that does not understand critical thinking or its role in education. Flexibility, intelligence, and capacity to interpret threats as they evolve is crucial to understanding and evolving a stronger defense as a nation, not
a knee-jerk reaction to what makes you feel scared and threatened. Because in the end, this is what makes the terrorists stronger; they learn that what they really need to recruit is attractive, young terrorists.
Next time we as a nation feel threatened, we need to stop playing it easy. We need to stop going the easy route, the lazy route, the expensive route. This has been our modus operandi for so long. This is our post 9/11, fear operated world.
We need to stop installing inefficient, TSA scanners at every airport, which don’t actually find anything other than grandmothers and people in wheelchairs and little 3 year olds with favorite toys which the TSA takes delight in removing and breaking. We need to start thinking with intelligence about how threats evolve, how best to meet them and how it can be done simply, cheaply, and without invasion of privacy of individuals. The NSA’s surveillance of every individual in the USA is an outrage that we should not be standing for, because it doesn’t actually yield effective results. If it did, wouldn’t Tsarnaev and his brother have been caught before
the Boston bombings actually happened? He wasn’t tech savvy. He was a dumb kid. If the NSA couldn’t catch him when they have surveillance on every individual in America, what does that say about the effectiveness of their programs? But then again we are standing for whatever the NSA says because nobody is thinking it through; critical thinking has come to a complete standstill in America, if it is not actually sliding backwards at this point.
It is a hallmark of a totalitarian state to attempt to alter, remove, or edit information that is challenging or doesn’t fit the state’s portrayal of how they feel a suspect should be portrayed through the media. On the other hand, it is a hallmark of a free and open society, such as a democracy, that a healthy debate takes place through the press and allows challenging information, while it may be upsetting to some, to form a complex, shifting picture, composed of many hundreds of puzzle pieces, in the reconstruction of an individual’s prior life, history, motives, and what may have inspired him or her to commit such a horrible crime. Crime is a complex subject, as is psychology, and it is also an upsetting one. The two are intertwined, and since we can never truly enter the mind of another human being, many of the puzzle pieces will be forever lost. The best we can do at sorting out the motives of a crime is to read and consider, with an open mind, as many well thought out and perhaps challenging yet difficult pieces to be published. This means cherishing the fundamentals of our democracy, and perhaps the most important piece of all: the right and the responsibility of every citizen to continue thinking critically, and to challenge subconscious bias. #Psychology #bostonstrong #RollingStone #tsarnaev #CriticalThinking #Education #NSA #TSA #ACLU #EFF