Evil can’t be explained in a cover line

Rolling Stone's cover story of the Boston Marathon bomber shows another side to terror

Sean Murphy / Massachusetts State Police / AP; Wenner Media / AP

Everyone likes the long read in this month’s Rolling Stone magazine—Janet Reitman’s story about the inner life of alleged Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev—but few like the magazine cover that complements it. The offending cover shot, denounced by Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and thousands of angry Americans, some of whom have pledged to cancel their subscriptions, shows a cool and reclined Tsarnaev, his tousled hair and brown eyes bathed in warm light. The photo is a “selfie,” a picture Tsarnaev took himself and uploaded onto Twitter. At first glance, you might mistake him for a young Jim Morrison or a slightly dishevelled Jonas brother; certainly not the monster he’s presumed to be. Critics see this as a crude glamorization of terrorism. Rolling Stone, in trying to do edgy, has done grotesque. Nobody, after all, wants to picture Dzhokhar Tsarnaev pinning that magazine cover above his jail-cell bunk like he’s back in his dorm room at UMass. Nobody wants to give him the satisfaction of feeling like a human being again. (Or of looking like one. Shortly after the cover went up on newsstands, an enraged Boston police officer released pictures from Tsarnaev’s arrest, showing him bloodied and bruised.)

Yet our public analyses of the suspected bomber tend to have “fragile, sympathetic human being” written all over them. It seems that what we can’t tolerate aesthetically—a casual Tsarnaev on the cover of a major magazine—we relish on the printed page. Every write-up about the teen is a laundry list of ordinary virtues and shortcomings. He played sports. He had lots of friends. He smoked pot. His grades fell. Girls liked him. It’s a macabre twist on the tabloid vernacular: “Suspected terrorists: They’re just like us.”

Morbid curiosity aside, however, we look to the alleged bomber’s backstory for signs of motivation. We hope that, somewhere in that laundry list of failed tests and relationships, we’ll find a “root cause.” Why did he do it? Well, Rolling Stone suggests he was disassociated and culturally confused; the New York Times says he was angry; and Fox News blames immigration. Your next-door neighbour says it’s the mother’s fault. It’s the guessing game that never ends. But it’s also offensive—infinitely more so than the Rolling Stone cover—because it encourages us to arrive at an explanation that not only betrays our own common sense, but fails, epically, to match the severity of the crime Tsarnaev has allegedly carried out.

This maddening train of inquiry can be summed up in a sentence—the last sentence of a Metro newsmaker I read a few years ago about a man who butchered his entire family and took his own life: “Sources say he was having financial troubles.” You don’t say.

Lots of people are in debt, lots of people are alienated from society, and lots of people cannot see the light at the end of the tunnel, but lots of people do not butcher their families or, as Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his late brother Tamerlan are alleged to have done, set off explosives whose metal innards shredded the limbs of innocent people and ended their lives. Debt, matrimonial discord, moving to a new country—these experiences don’t typically trigger mass murder. (If they did, credit cards, marriage and immigration would be illegal.) So why are heinous crimes consistently attributed to them? Because acknowledging the existence of evil has, for some reason, fallen deeply out of fashion. What this means is that, in place of evil as an explanation for bad things happening in the world (and what is evil but a name for horrors we can’t explain), we get answers verging on the absurd.  Suddenly, everything is a catalyst for destruction.

There are the textbook signs: “Studies on Canadians involved in international terrorism show that a sense of exclusion, marginalization and political grievance are often key facets of ‘homegrown’ terrorist behaviour,” university researchers David Carment and Stewart Prest wrote in the Globe and Mail in April, following Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s divisive remarks about the “root causes” of terrorism.

And then there are the signs that aren’t signs at all: “The integration of Canadians socially, economically and politically,” they continued, “increases their capacity to participate positively in society. But that is not always the case, as one recently released study from CSIS [the Canadian Security Intelligence Service] shows a more complex set of issues are at play. Even well-integrated Canadian citizens, mostly young males, are susceptible to extremism.”

That complex set of issues at play—the kind that allow for a world in which an obviously tortured soul (Adam Lanza, who massacred schoolchildren in Newtown, Conn.) and a guy who could have been prom king (Dzhokhar Tsnarnaev) coexist to inflict lethal cruelty on innocent people—is actually quite simple: Evil takes all kinds.

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