Emotion rules over reason in Rolling Stone controversy

Sadly, my post yesterday about the number of Americans who think the First Amendment goes too far in protecting freedom was all too timely. We now have people across the country throwing conniption fits over the cover photo Rolling Stone used for its story on accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

r1188coverEvidently some people believe the photo somehow glorifies Tsarnaev, even suggesting it evokes the iconic photograph of Jim Morrison and means Rolling Stone is trying to glamorize Tsarnaev or make him a celebrity. The outrage has gone so far that some stores — such as HyVee and CVS — are refusing to sell this issue of the magazine. But this is self-righteousness without reason. In fact, I think the anger and fear stem from the fact the photo humanizes Tsarnaev.

The RS article is about how a bright and popular young man was drawn into becoming a terrorist. As a result, the photo, taken by Tsarnaev himself, shows a young man who appears entirely normal and in step with his peers. If we know where he ended up, doesn’t it make sense to see him as he was before? In fact, as Rob W. Hart of LitReactor observed yesterday, “… isn’t that sort of the point? That’s not just a photo. It’s context. It’s perspective.”

capture4To counter the photo, pictures of Tsarnaev’s capture, including some showing a sniper’s laser dot on his forehead, were released. That’s fine because that, too, is perspective. As Washington Post columnist Erik Wemple observed, the RS cover photo “is a version of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev that’s just as real as the weary, bloody version that we see in the police photos. It’s merely taken at a different point in his life. No amount of gory manhunt photography will undo the fact that Tsarnaev was once, by all accounts, a gregarious and well-adjusted part of our society. Rolling Stone set out to tell that story.”

And isn’t it a story we want to hear? Don’t we want to get some clue about how Tsarnaev went from typical American high school and college student to accused monster? Yet knee jerk reactions that the photo might offend victims or lionize Tsarnaev started before the story even hit the magazine’s online site, let alone store shelves or mailboxes. If we’re that afraid of looking at a young man before he somehow embarks on a road to terrorism, then we are missing the point. In fact, we may just be guaranteeing more victims in the future.


Anger blows out the lamp of the mind.

Robert G. Ingersoll

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