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More thoughts on the Rolling Stone cover photo

Rolling Stone Cover TsarnevMy post on the Rolling Stone portrayal of Tsarnev has, to say the least, generated a bit of an emotional response. Much of it positive, but there’s certainly a fair amount of disagreement.

I think the problem that some people have with the cover is that it has a tendency to humanize Tsarnev. On that cover, you see him as “normal.” Meanwhile, we prefer to see villains as one-dimensional. It is just so comforting to look at someone who did something horrible, and say “I could not even see myself hanging out with this guy, he’s just not like us.”

It makes it easier to deal with if we can look at this guy and say “he’s a monster.” There, the end. No texture. No substance to our analysis. We are good. He is bad. The end.

And along comes Rolling Stone and examines the guy in all dimensions. They use a photo of him that makes him look like he could fit in just fine as the guy in the dorm room next door. They have the audacity to dig into his life, and to tell his story to us.

Unfortunately (or fortunately) as human beings, we all have the capacity for both good and evil, love and hate, empathy, compassion, vindictiveness…. and it makes me uncomfortable too. Tsarnev is the wretched asshole who attacked my home town.

But, he is also someone’s son, brother, uncle. As evil as his ACT was, he’s a human being. Someone loved him. Someone still loves him. Someone sat him on their lap when he was a baby. Someone handed their baby to him, perhaps his brother, and he treated that baby with affection. He left a half used bottle of shampoo in the shower the last time he left his house. He went grocery shopping. He didn’t live in a lair, with bats and shit. He shared 99.999% of his human experience and genetics with you and me.

I don’t say this out of compassion or feeling for him. I’m pissed off at him too. I don’t wish for mercy upon him. I’m delighted at the thought of him locked in solitary confinement in a supermax prison for the rest of his life, with stark walls closing in on him as his mind eats away at itself in the most unspeakable tortures mankind can ever imagine. Fuck him.

I don’t want you to humanize him out of mercy. Better people than I would probably do so. I am just not that good of a person.

I say this to try and provoke you to think about your feelings of revulsion for this magazine cover (if you have them), and where they really come from. Would you be happier if it was a different picture of him? One that didn’t have a tendency to humanize him? Or is it simply the fact that he is on the cover at all?

The point of journalism is supposed to be to educate, to inform, to leave the reader more enlightened than before – and even that is not always the end in itself, but it should be the means to a more effective self-governing society. We get there by having texture, thought, and viewing even the worst of us in their full three dimensions.

This was ethical journalism. This was good journalism.

And, the fact is, one of the things that makes a society stronger, better, and “more American” (at least as I understand that term) is good journalism.

Don’t be part of dumbing it down by letting your revulsion for the event, the actions, and the man, rain down on one of the good things to come of it — the thought provocation that comes from effective journalism. When you do that, you let the Tsarnevs continue to wreak damage.

Mayor Menino’s call for stories about the victims, and “honoring” them, instead, completely misses the point. Focusing on the dead teaches us nothing. Focusing even on the heroes of that day, unfortunately, teaches us nothing. We already think about that. We already understand that. Hoisting the cops and firemen on our shoulders and mourning the dead does nothing for us.

Learning about the bad guy does. It really does.

The Tsarnevs lose if we are better after what they did. They win even more if we turn this into yet another victim contest and further dumbing down of what is left of real journalism.

You’re a citizen in the remnants of a democratic society. You have a responsibility to be smarter every day. Decrying Rolling Stone for trying to help you do that is not the right thing to do. Pressuring stores to take journalism off of their racks because you think you’re supposed to be offended, that’s not the right thing to do. Sending a warning shot across the bow of every newspaper and magazine with your outcry? You’re part of why American journalism is racing toward shlock and celebrity worship every day, and away from Edward R. Murrow. The “celebrity treatment” that you complain about? It is an invention of your own mind.

Stop it.

You might think you’re supposed to be offended. You’re wrong. You’re supposed to be better, smarter, and more informed. And so is everyone else.

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