The Book and Its Cover
Pulling my copy of "Rolling Stone" out of my mailbox the other morning, my first thought was "Oh -- it’s that issue." The firestorm that had erupted over the magazine putting a glamorous photo of Boston bomber Jahar Tsarnaev on its cover had taken on such outsized dimension that I’d forgotten I was due to receive my own copy via U.S. Post.
"So what do you think of this whole Boston Bomber on the cover of the Rolling Stone thing?" a client at my massage practice had asked me not long before my copy arrived in the mail.
"It’s like TIME’s ’Man of the Year’," I said. "They don’t hold the guy up as a role model. They just acknowledge that he’s shaken up the world."
But that wasn’t, evidently, the whole story. What I kept reading and hearing was that it was the particular photo the magazine had used that angered people. Tsarnaev looked pouty, or pretty, or like a rock star; he looked like some sort of youth idol. Reading between the lines, it sounded like critics were accusing Rolling Stone of lionizing Tsarnaev and making terrorism sexy.
But were they? Or was the point how a kid who looked so innocuous (he seems more like someone who should be writing really bad, but soulful, songs with a guitar in his hand than someone who might create IEDs out of pressure cookers) could turn out to be a remorseless killer, rationalizing his contemptible actions with vague references to the suffering of his fellow Muslims?
To know what the intent was, you might have to read the article itself. But good luck gaining access to the magazine if you live in Boston, where vendors reflexively yanked the mag off the shelves and readers demanded that their subscriptions be cancelled.
It’s not hard to sympathize. As someone else said to me, "Imagine you were a victim, or one of your children was a victim, of this guy? And you see him on the cover? I’d be livid!"
And I am livid. I was at the Boston Marathon this year when the bombing happened; I wrote about it at the time. This kid Jahar and his sociopathic older brother killed and maimed people in my city -- at an event I support by volunteering every year. They brought terror, but also rage and a deep sadness to Boston by striking at one of our most cherished traditions, the Boston Marathon -- the running event that started the modern phenomenon of marathon runs in cities all over the nation and the world.
Walking home last April 18, I wanted the perpetrators caught and punished. A few days later, stuck indoors for hours as police searched for the murderous brothers, I found myself half hoping they’d both go down in a hail of hot lead: It’s what they deserved, my not-so-better angels whispered in my ear.
I still want to see Jahar get what’s coming to him, and I can’t say I shed any tears for his monstrous older brother, who didn’t survive to be taken into custody and charged, though at the same time I also wish he were here to face the music. If jihad is a war you fight inside yourself, this particular issue is a battlefield for me, as for many Bostonians. We don’t believe in the death penalty around these parts... but sometimes we wish we did.
But as furious as I am at how innocents were cruelly killed and maimed, and as much as my blood boils in me with a wish to see Jahar suffer for his crimes, I’m also concerned about who he once was and who he turned out to be. I want to know who this man is, and how he came to do the things he did. I also wonder what we might learn to prevent this sort of thing from happening in the future.
One thought that occurs to me is you can’t simply judge a book by its cover; the deep disconnect here is how we see a seer-faced youth and we know of the unpardonable, absolutely evil things he did. No one saw it coming: Was it because the people in Jahar’s life also went by surface appearances? With a glance at him, did the people around Jahar write off any sense that he might have been going wrong, or some sort of intervention should have been forthcoming?
I boarded the bus to work with the magazine rolled up in one hand. Did I dare unfurl the much-maligned issue and see what author Janet Reitman had uncovered about this young man, and what she had concluded? Or would a glimpse of the magazine set off some sort of furor?
I could certainly understand such a response. I don’t want to see Jahar Tsarnaev plastered on the cover of the Rolling Stone like some latter-day Jim Morrison or, worse, a martyr to some vicious and bloodthirsty cause. I imagined a chorus of offended fellow bus passengers erupting into opprobrium. I could understand thoughts and feelings of anger and resentment at the sight of the magazine because I had those thoughts and feelings myself.
But simply to stop there is to miss something greater and more important. To combat, prevent, and defuse religious terrorism, we need a comprehensive understanding of what fuels religious terrorism, and who is vulnerable to the psychological conditions that turn young men into killers.
I don’t buy the idea that Jahar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev were evil just for the sake of being evil, or that they are enemies of America and freedom simply because they are Muslim. I live in a city that has a mosque or two; I share the sidewalks in my neighborhood with devout Muslims who wear the traditional garb of their faith. I don’t really understand the Muslim faith, but then again, I don’t really understand the Christian faith, or the Jewish faith, or the Baha’i faith. That doesn’t mean I expect every Christian to be a terrorist or every Jew to be plotting the downfall of civilization (though I understand that there are those among the ranks of the zealous in every faith tradition who suspect these things about gays).
Indeed, the other evening as I walked through the Boston Common, I witnessed the corrosive effect of that sort of blanket suspicion and distrust: A young fellow went walked by me swiftly, half-yelling his thoughts for the benefit of all within earshot:
"Why don’t we just abolish all immigration control and invite all those goddamn terrorists into our country with their pressure cookers? Why don’t we just surrender and let them take over right now? What can you expect when you put a goddamn chimpanzee in the White House -- ?"
What makes a guy who is probably a highly functional member of society boil over with such venom and rage? What makes someone flame out with such hatred and vitriol? It is fear? Is it a sense of his own racial or ethnic superiority? Is it a response to the stress and pressure of life in a big city, or a society that’s fragmenting?
What drives the paradox of people who can coexist in a community... but only so far? How is that angry man venting in the park different in his thought process from an angry guy whose "venting" consists of more than shouted scornful words? How do we know an angry guy of Northern European ancestry will stop at loud, obnoxious words and not go down the same path taken by these two kids of Central Asian extraction?
And how can a kid whose wrestling coach termed him "a natural," whose friends regarded him as "a dude you could always just vibe with," a talented boxer who never struck out at anyone from anger or aggression, suddenly turn into a cunning, malicious criminal deliberately setting out to inflict terrible physical and emotional harm, not only on the individuals who had the misfortune of being in the path of the debris his explosives sent flying, but also an entire city?
The Tsarnaev brothers are the sons of a Chechen father and a Dagestani mother. The Rolling Stone article indicated that their father, Anzor, was essentially secular; he came to America for the same reason immigrants have come here for centuries, in search of opportunity and the chance to create a better life for himself and his family.
But that better life failed to materialize, and when his wife and elder son turned deeply religious it drove a wedge through the family. Anzor left and went to Russia. His ex-wife followed soon enough, after being charged with shoplifting. The main influence in Jahar’s life was his older brother, who had not only become religious but also, the Rolling Stone article reported, become fascinated by the idea of Muslims in Chechen fighting a jihad against the Russians.
Many young men idolize the military and romanticize the idea of living as warriors: Being tough dudes who band together, endure hardship, survive battle and weather and privation in the name of some great cause, and eventually are rewarded with glory. How that fantasy plays out for children of immigrants, with broken families and extreme religious views to fill the gap, can be glimpsed in the story of how Tamerlan became increasingly domineering in his personal life and militant in his political views. The way Tamerlan’s zealotry spilled over onto his younger brother is another part of the story.
One friend called Jahar "basically abandoned" by his parents; others in the interview echoed and amplified that perception, but applied it to the adult world in general, from federal regulations that "screw" immigrant youths "from the moment they turn around" to a continuum of adult stewards of the younger set who "totally misunderstands them and dismisses them -- and does so at our collective peril." Jahar believed, as many immigrant youth evidently do, that 9/11 was an "inside job" perpetrated by Jews and used to gin up hatred against Muslims.
Another paradox: How a young man angered that people of his faith could be unfairly cast wholesale as terrorists could then turn to terrorism. And more frightening than that, the paradox of how a smart, educated young man -- a student at a prestigious school -- could buy into wild conspiracy theories. But you don’t have to be a young immigrant, or from a broken home, to do that. America has long since collectively dived into the deep end of such theorizing. It informs our politics, our voting, and every aspect of our lives. It fuels Fox News and talk radio. More than the Judeo-Christian tradition, it’s become our national religion, an utter faith in the idea that shadowy forces are out to get us, and the Jews / blacks / queers / Muslims / square-staters are either their bewildered willing stooges or else the puppet masters to whom the strings ultimately lead.
But you won’t get any of this text, or subtext, by not reading the article. And you won’t get to read the article if a vendor, offended by the cover, doesn’t offer the magazine for sale... or if, judging the book by its cover alone, you decide to boycott it.
There’s a similar surface reaction in which deeper reflection was glossed over and more careful consideration was bypassed that comes readily to mind. When, in 2001, Congress rushed the Patriot Act into law, it was with great support from the frightened, angry constituents of the politicians who crafted the law. Now, a dozen years later, the public are angry about the authority the Patriot Act gives the government to track and monitor us. We judged the Patriot Act on its cover, too, or maybe its name, and assumed that it was going to protect us from the bad guys; now we’re shocked... shocked... to discover that the Patriot Act treats all of us like bad guys in the name of securing that protection.
What might we have learned had we approached the issue of terrorism with less alacrity and more critical thinking in 2001? What are we on the verge of missing in 2013 by deploring a photo on a magazine cover but ignoring the substance of the story within its pages?
I unrolled the magazine and folded the front cover over, out of view. It seemed a reasonable compromise. Then I realized no one cared what I was reading: I was the only one worried about it. Setting those worries aside, I started to read -- and, if not comprehend, at least to consider.