Skip to main content

Rolling Stone cover: Why we must look

By David Weinberger, Special to CNN
updated 8:15 PM EDT, Fri July 19, 2013
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
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
updated 12:23 AM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:54 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT