Terrorist or Rock Star?

Rolling Stone's cover of the Boston bomber was in poor taste.

(Michael Thurston/AFP via Getty Images)

It's become almost a comical cliché at times, the idea that any limit we put on our own behavior, or any expansion of law enforcement and intelligence-gathering, is somehow a sign that the "terrorists" have won, because the real reason they have committed horrible acts of violence is that they hate us for our freedom. That on its own is more than a bit naive and self-aggrandizing, as the motives and issues attached to mass murder are far more nuanced. But in the case of the provocative Rolling Stone cover, it happens to be on point.

The iconic music mag has been blasted for its cover featuring accused Boston marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and much of the outrage is warranted. It's not that the accompanying story is laudatory. The title, after all, is "The Bomber: How a Popular, Promising Student Was Failed by His Family, Fell into Radical Islam, and Became a Monster." It's that the photo, from a distance, looks like an up-and-coming Jim Morrison, the sultry lead singer for The Doors whose life, not incidentally, also took a tragic turn when he died at age 27 in Paris.

Rolling Stone, surely, knows that the cover will be provocative, knows that provocative sells copies and gets attention and knows it can stand on a First Amendment soapbox in defense, practicing the very freedoms folks like Tsarnaev purportedly don't want us to have. Said the magazine in a note to readers:

[See a collection of editorial cartoons on the Boston Marathon bombings.]

Our hearts go out to the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing, and our thoughts are always with them and their families. The cover story we are publishing this week falls within the traditions of journalism and Rolling Stone's long-standing commitment to serious and thoughtful coverage of the most important political and cultural issues of our day. The fact that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is young, and in the same age group as many of our readers, makes it all the more important for us to examine the complexities of this issue and gain a more complete understanding of how a tragedy like this happens.

Still, it was tasteless, and not because we should ignore the stories of notorious people on the presumption that we shouldn't reward them for their behavior, but because it buys into the offensively expanded idea of celebrity. Rolling Stone typically writes about rock stars, and the brooding photo of the curly-locked Tsarnaev makes him look like a rock star.

The reaction by retailers, however, has been excessive. CVS and other outlets have pledged not to carry the offending issue, with Tedeschi Food Shops posting on its Facebook page that "music and terrorism don't mix." That's a bit facile, and ignores the fact that Rolling Stone writes not just about music, but politics and culture as well. Refusing to carry the issue of the magazine is an insult to readers, who can choose for themselves whether or not to buy it. It's not visually obscene or violent.

The cover may be in bad taste, but it's in worse taste to assume the role of censor. That, in fact, is how the attackers of First Amendment freedoms win.

  • Read Leslie Marshall: Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman, Rush Limbaugh and Race in America
  • Read Lara Brown: Why the Senate Backed Down From the Nuclear Option in Filibuster Fight
  • Check out U.S. News Weekly, now available on iPad