Thursday July 25, 2013

If there's one thing we have learned from the kerfuffle over the decision by Rolling Stone's editors to put the surviving Boston Marathon bombing suspect on its cover it's this: Villains don't always look the part.

Whether you feel the decision made by the editors was a slap in the face of the victims or necessary in understanding the complexity of the issues involved, we should all learn that the face of evil is banal.

The killer or sexual predator next door doesn't look like a comic book caricature; they look like a neighbor. Perhaps that is what is so distressing to the critics of the Rolling Stone cover. While they declaim their outrage over what they call the glorification of the bomber, deep down inside they are roiled by the fact the bomber looks so ordinary. As opposed to some of the mass killers and terrorists we have seen pictures of, this one doesn't have fangs or horns or a crazed look in his eyes. If anything, his image is one of a milquetoast; timid, unassertive, even spineless.

"To see him as that skinny kid on the ground, or on the Rolling Stone cover, is to confront the possibility that good-looking kids who seem totally normal, good students who give off no sign of trouble at all, can become monsters, too," wrote the Boston Globe's Yvonne Abraham.

"We would be both naive and irresponsible if we continued to expect them to meet our expectations of what ‘bad guys' should look like," wrote Fred Ritchin, a professor at NYU, for Time Magazine.


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"The jarringly non-threatening image of (the bomber) is exactly the point of the whole story," wrote Rolling Stone's Matt Taibi. "Even nice, polite, sweet-looking young kids can end up packing pressure-cookers full of shrapnel and tossing them into crowds of strangers."

It's his very normalcy and niceness that is the most monstrous and terrifying thing about him, wrote Taibi.

But most reactions to the cover story have been highly critical.

Writing for the Desert News in Salt Lake City, Carmen Rasmusen Herbert accused Rolling Stone of turning the bomber "into a rock star by plastering his ‘soulful brown eyes' on the front page and claiming it's all in the name of journalism ... Celebrities see it as a huge honor to be selected for the cover. It's a huge milestone in their careers. It usually means they've achieved something great. Does this mean that creating an act of terror is now considered something great here in the United States?"

Then there was this comment made by Fox News' Greg Gutfeld: "The cover used to be something to shoot for, now it's something to bomb for."

"By placing his selfie within the context of a magazine cover, a format regularly used to sell rock stars, movie icons, and models, the editors have collaborated with (the bomber) in the creation of his own celebrity," wrote the Boston Globe's Ty Burr.

However, Burr admitted the article itself was good journalism and helps us understand the enigma that is the surviving bomber.
"Our popular culture doesn't quite know what to do with enigma. We're drawn to it and disturbed by it, moved to explore it while hoping that someone, somewhere, will solve it."

For those who were able to get past the cover photo and actually read the article, "How a Popular, Promising Student Was Failed by His Family, Fell Into Radical Islam and Became a Monster," author Janet Reitman attempts to help us understand why someone described by his friends and acquaintances as "charming," "tousle-haired," "pillow soft," and "so sweet" to do what he did.

And while what he and his brother did was reprehensible, it's important to understand what led them to plant a bomb that killed three people, including an 8-year-old boy, and wounding 300 more.

But because we want to understand what precipitated their action, it doesn't mean we forgive what they did. The Rolling Stone cover story is just one way we can try to get to the bottom of their motives and perhaps prevent a similar act from happening again.

We know it raises hard questions, such as is there something about our culture that creates young men who go on killing sprees or who plant bombs at public events? This is a question we must ask ourselves if we are serious about ending violence in our communities.

Articles such as this can help us to see the red flags that indicate a seemingly happy, popular, handsome friend is actually alienated, lost, angry and hopeless. Perhaps if we see these signs in people we know, we can offer the support they need to address their issues before they turn to violence. If that's the one thing we take away from this controversy, then it is well worth it.