Skip to main content

Rolling Stone cover: Why we must look

By David Weinberger, Special to CNN
July 20, 2013 -- Updated 0015 GMT (0815 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Weinberger says he's not outraged about the Rolling Stone cover
  • He asks, why must we prove bombings upset us before we can discuss not minding cover?
  • He says cover assumes that we all agree bombings were an act of a monster
  • Weinberger: Cover confronts the mystery of someone like us who came to hate us

Editor's note: David Weinberger is a senior researcher at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet & Society and author of "Too Big to Know" (Basic Books).

(CNN) -- I know I'm supposed to be outraged by the Rolling Stone cover that depicts Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as a dreamy young man, with its implicit resonances with the famous Jim Morrison photo. When taken with the words that overlay it, the photo presents a mystery that we need to explore. So, I am not outraged. In fact, I am discouraged by the outrage itself.

I feel obligated to begin by stating that I have no sympathy for a murderer of children, that I was horrified by such actions, and that I feel deeply for the Boston bombing's victims. I live in Boston and have written about the sense of solidarity Bostonians felt after the attack, and especially on the day we sat still so that suspects could be tracked and caught. I rooted for Tsarenaev's capture, and I hope the alleged killer spends a long time miserable in jail, after a fair trial, of course.

But the very fact that we have to gain entry to the conversation by stating our bona fides like this disturbs me. Culture is based on shared values and beliefs. Having to state that you're against the killing and maiming of families and the loved ones they were cheering on creates a rift where there isn't one, as if this value were not a settled part of what binds our culture. Could we even come up with a stance that more quickly and surely means that you're not a part of the lives we share together?

David Weinberger
David Weinberger

The Rolling Stone cover correctly assumes that there is no such rift. It assumes that of course we all hate what the Tsarnaev and his older brother, the late Tamerlan Tsarnaev, are accused of doing (Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has pleaded not guilty to federal charges in connection with bombings). The words on that cover state what many of us — the "us" that covers our culture — believe: He was a bomber. There isn't even an "alleged" there, and the premise of the article stated on the cover also denies that qualifier: "How a popular, promising student was failed by his family, fell into radical Islam and became a monster." In case you were unclear about where Rolling Stone stands on Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the words "bomber" and "monster" should make it clear.

But you shouldn't be unclear. That's why we have a culture -- a shared set of values and beliefs.

The words are not causing the outrage that the photo has engendered. But when taken with the words, the angelic photo makes exactly the point that needs to be made and that our Culture of Outrage obscures.

When a terrorist was raised in a foreign land, and especially when to the mainstream the terrorist looks foreign and repellent — for example, the photo of an unkempt, grim Khalid Sheikh Mohammed that has become so iconic that it's even used at Wikipedia, a site that takes a "neutral point of view" as its mantra — we feel safe in simply assigning the person to a category. "He's a terrorist," we say, as if that were a biological species that completely explains the person. Such categories shut down thought. They block understanding. Terrorist? 'Nuf said.

Officer releases pics of 'real' Tsarnaev
Tlumacki on 'poster boy for terror'
Boston Bombing suspect as cover boy

But it's not enough. Understanding is important not only so that we can help prevent the sort of despicable Boston Marathon bombers and the KSMs of our fractured world, but also so we can see our human species — and thus ourselves — more clearly.

The cover photo of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev taken with the stark words overlaying it speak to the mystery that was laid bare when the brothers were first identified. The media turned to his friends, interviewing young men and women who were profoundly shocked that someone they knew as helpful, warm, and open to diversity could be accused of so deeply betraying their values. I felt like I knew many of those friends, for they were so like our children and the children they know.

That was the mystery that was presented to us when the Tsarnaevs were identified not only as murder suspects, but as a threat to the humane innocence that is the heart of American culture.

We need that mystery explored. To counter our natural desire to think that those who attack us so vilely must be totally unlike us, we need not only the words denouncing them, but images that reminds us that they weren't born as what they became. This juxtaposition makes the mystery manifest: Someone like us became someone who hates us.

We need to explore that mystery not so we can sympathize with a despicable accused murderer but so we understand better how he passed beyond sympathy. The cover of Rolling Stone -- words and picture -- puts that awful mystery right in front of us.

But we seem to prefer the security of outrage.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Weinberger.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2322 GMT (0722 HKT)
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT