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DZHOKHAR: The cover of Rolling Stone

Beneath the magazine cover, what did the article say?


Most people who saw the cover of the August 1, 2013 Rolling Stone, either the postage-stamp-sized version online or on the newsstand edition, seem to agree: it ranked somewhere between tasteless and (as one person posted on my Facebook wall) “disgusting.”

But what about the article by Rolling Stone contributing editor Janet Reitman in that issue? Was it too tasteless? Was it also disgusting? Reitman, interviewed after the cover ignited a storm of protests, complained that most of those criticizing the magazine and calling for boycotts had never read her article. And she has a point, because the cover of Rolling Stone and the article titled “Jahar’s World” on page 46 exist in separate dimensions. Let’s skip past the controversial cover and consider the article, which in many ways is about as controversial as vanilla ice cream. It exists to tell, almost unemotionally, the story of the 19-year-old Russian immigrant who Rolling Stone correctly identifies as “The Bomber.” Not “The Suspect” or “The Alleged Killer,” but “The Bomber.” Give the magazine credit for that truth along with the sub-title explaining Reitman’s article: “How a popular, promising student was failed by his family, fell into radical Islam and became a monster.”

Yes, “monster.” Looks like a normal kid, popular, promising; acts like a monster.

The “popular, promising student” was Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, younger brother of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the other bomber, who was killed in the police shoot-out that Jahar survived. In Reitman’s article, we see Jahar (his nickname) first through the eyes of his wrestling coach at a Cambridge High School. Coach Peter Payack was as stunned as anybody when his son called several days after the bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon and said of a video of the suspect showed on TV, “Dad, that’s Jahar.”

Reitman would quote Payack: “I felt like a bullet went through my heart. To think that a kid we mentored and loved like a son could have been responsible for all this death. It was beyond shocking. It was like an alternate reality.”

Other friends of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, those inhabiting Jahar’s World, felt the same. Reitman pictures Jahar (unlike his older brother) as being on nobody’s watch list. “To the contrary,” she reports, “after several months of interviews with friends, teachers and coaches still reeling from the shock, what emerges is a portrait of a boy who glided through life, showing virtually no signs of anger, let alone radical political ideology or any kind of deeply felt religious beliefs.”

Just like the picture on the cover of Rolling Stone.

Reitman spends the rest of the article trying to peer behind the cover photo, to paint a portrait, offering countless comments by his high school friends suggesting, if not proving, that Jahar existed as an anomaly, one whose mindless crime could not easily have been predicted, not by any word or action that might have alerted any governmental agency assigned to keep us safe from terrorist acts. Okay, he smoked pot, but so probably do a lot of readers of Rolling Stone. They don’t suddenly load a backpack with explosives, take the T to Boylston Street, and leave the pack, or packs, on a corner to detonate and kill and maim people.

Bombs explode all the time in Iraq and Afganistan and the Breaking News offered us by CNN and other cable channels exists mostly as background chatter, another day in the continuing War Against Terror. But this was Boston? And this was our marathon? What went wrong?

Was Jahar “failed by his family,” as the sell line on the cover of Rolling Stone suggests? That’s a tough question to answer. The young terrorist arrived in the U.S. with his parents at the age of eight. The father got a job as a mechanic at a pay scale just above the minimum wage. The mother worked as a home-health aid, then switched to cosmetology, giving facials at a local salon. They weren’t doing great, but they weren’t doing badly either. The boys who would become bombers attended the same school in Cambridge once attended by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck of Hollywood fame. Disappointed that America was not the land of milk and honey, the father moved back to Russia, leaving his wife, eventually divorcing her. The wife later was arrested after shoplifting $1,600 and fled to Russia to avoid prosecution. Let's be honest: This family arrived in America with baggage, not baggage acquired after arriving here. Two sisters moved away from the family to New Jersey. An uncle lived outside Washington and seemed to have integrated well into American life. After the bombing, he would be interviewed on TV denouncing his brother’s family in Cambridge, seemingly angry at the disgrace the two bombers brought him and those who were having more luck achieving the American Dream.

Jahar’s older brother, Tamerlan, returned to Russia for a period, where he may have become radicalized, where he may have learned how to make bombs, then returned to Boston. Reitman devotes little of her article to the older brother, not explaining him, focusing on Jahar. Yet she fails in her attempt to explain Jahar, and I am not being critical of Reitman’s journalistic ability. I’m not sure Jahar can be explained. I’m not sure the act of terrorism he committed with his brother can be explained. I don’t think the brothers (one of them now dead) could have explained their actions either to themselves, or to the public. The wrestling coach got it right when he said what happened “was like an alternative reality.”

“The reality,” Reitman writes, “is that none of Jahar’s friends had any idea he was unhappy, and they really didn’t know he had any issues in his family other than, perhaps, his parents’ divorce, which was kind of normal.”

So we are left with the teasing question posed on the cover of Rolling Stone. It remains unanswered. We do not know “how a popular, promising student was failed by his family, fell into radical Islam and became a monster.” We may never know.

About that cover: Was it tasteless? Was it disgusting? It depends on which way you approach the now iconic cover. If you were the assigning editor at Rolling Stone, who after reading Reitman’s article needed to find a way to illustrate it, the photo chosen for the cover seems logical. Again, bland as vanilla ice cream. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was simply a popular, promising person, who somehow became a terrorist and killed a couple of people and injured, severely, a bunch more, and made us all mad, because the 26 miles 385 yards of the marathon course between Hopkinton and Boylston Street is sacred ground, our Mecca, and should not be profaned by popular, promising people. Rolling Stone offers on its cover, a person who was popular and promising. We are offered a Yearbook portrait, a headshot that might have been taken at a high school prom, a photo that actually did appear on the Bomber's Facebook page.

Tasteless? Disgusting? Yes, it was, but also an accurate portrait of a troubled, young man.

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Hal Higdon is a contributing editor for Runner's World and author of the soon-to-be-published 4:09:43, a book about the Boston Marathon bombings from the viewpoint of those who ran the race.