Putting Tsarnev on the cover highlights the power he has left.
There is an attractive young man on the cover of this month’s Rolling Stone. The shot is a self-portrait, one he took for his Twitter account while slouched against a wall, brown hair wildly tousled and lips slumped with stereotypical millenial disinterest. His dark eyes couldn’t be called soulful exactly, but they are expressive in a way one could construe as introspective, intelligent maybe, but surely indicative of a rich inner life. His vaguely ethnic features recall Eastern Europe, and his slouch recalls your best friend’s older brother, giving him an allure both exotic and familiar.
The fact that this is Dzohkar “Jahar” Tsarnev, the young man allegedly responsible with his brother for the Boston Bombings and the death of three innocent people, is perhaps not as easy to remember when you’re staring at this photo from a social media account, responding like we all do to an attractive young man. And that is what scares us about Jahar, what never scared us about Osama Bin Laden, Timothy McVeigh, Joseph Stalin or Charles Manson when they got the glossy treatment on Time, Rolling Stone and Newsweek.
Jahar is young. Jahar is beautiful.
These are the remaining powers Jahar still possesses, one of which we will not be able to take away from him. Because make no mistake, in American society, in all Western society, beauty and youth still equal power. They still represent promise and virility and attraction in a way that we’ve begun to associate so closely with the American Dream that Jahar’s American crime sticks like the ultimate defiling. When that face is spread alone across the cover of a national magazine, cut loose from the wide shots of carnage and red pixelated puddles pooling around faceless victims, we are forced to look at his two remaining powers exclusively, the beauty and youth he still has left.
They should mean nothing. But with more people angry about this cover in a way they seemingly never were about monsters on magazines past, we have to start asking why these powers do.
Most everyone who is angry about the cover—the mayor of Boston, CVS, Walgreen’s, countless bloggers—has cited a fear of “glorification,” the possibility that because Jahar is occupying the same hallowed space that pop stars and politicians (and reality starlets) do, he’ll inspire the same reverence, the same respect. Rolling Stone effectively acknowledged the possibility in their defense of the cover, referencing the fact that Jahar occupies “the same age group as many of our readers.” It’s these young folk that we’re most worried will fall under beauty’s spell, though by being more upset about this cover than say, Osama Bin Laden’s, we’ve effectively admitted we already have.
Because yes, it is true that we are conditioned to respond positively to youth and beauty, to revere it as a symbol of goodness, as an indicator of what we can trust. But even more frightening than his potential glory is the sympathy his face could inspire. There must be more to the story, someone might say. He must not have known what he was getting into.
It’s too much to consider that evil and beauty can coincide, that one can cloak the other like a bad secret. It’s the reason demonic children are such an jolting trope in horror movies—it takes a quintessential image of vitality and promise, and poisons it, contorts into something that can cut us. Attractive killers unnerve partly because they’ve misled you, allowed you to find comfort, even normalcy in in their easy beauty, and then taken advantage of the trust you’ve given them.
Obviously, Jahar’s good looks are not the only reason people are upset with Rolling Stone. The headline that accompanies the article, while pegging him as a “monster”, also claims his family “failed” him, as though a bad home life is a logical precursor to murdering innocent civilians. There’s also the predictable Rolling Stone-y-ness of the whole issue— take a sweltering, fire poker of a topical event and slap it on the cover in a vague controversial statement that you never have to fully explain. Oh, and then sell a ton of magazines—make that a shitload— for your trouble.
But the backlash “The Bomber” cover has inspired reveals a darker fear about ourselves. We are afraid of being manipulated by this man again, of forgetting how the story ended when a beautiful face is in front of us. We are afraid of falling for old American power play, the easy story of the young, beautiful boy who fell into the wrong crowd, the wrong time, the wrong world. Because to do so is to hold up his 19 years of circumstance and youth and say it matters as much as when he murdered 3 people, injured hundreds and terrified a nation.
In the end, that crime is the only important thing about him.
There is blood on those beautiful hands. Don’t forget it.
Photo: Rolling Stone, AP Wenner