Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Face of Terror on Rolling Stone

One of the photos released by Sgt. Murphy
Rolling Stone magazine, a publication not known for its political correctness, drew fire from nearly every corner this week when the latest edition featured a tousled, dreamy-eyed Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the cover. The photo was reminiscent of famous covers featuring Jim Morrison or Bob Dylan: all three carried the glazy visage of curly-haired men. The ire-inducing difference of course being that Tsarnaev is a domestic terrorist responsible for the deaths of four people and the life-altering injuries of dozens of others. At time of writing, a Boycott the Rolling Stone Facebook page had over 170,000 “likes” and the outrage reached a fever pitch on social media over the last week.

Boston mayor Thomas Menino aptly summarized the feelings of many Bostonians when he said that the publication is not worthy of those they could have featured, the many courageous and resilient victims and survivors of that awful day and its aftermath. A tactical photographer with the Boston Police, Sgt. Sean Murphy, was suspended the next day for releasing photos of what he called “the true face of terror,” Tsarnaev emerging bloodied and beaten from a boat in Watertown. The cover was certainly done in poor taste, but Rolling Stone has achieved its ends, stirring up controversy and drawing in readers. It’s a tough time for print media, and apparently this is the only strategy the editors could think of to get attention.

It’s a shame that they could not have chosen their cover more wisely, because the article it introduces is a well-written and researched piece that offers a glimpse into the inner world of a domestic terrorist. While people will and should abhor Tsarnaev for what he has done, it is impossible to prevent another domestic attack without understanding the motivations behind this one. Tsarnaev’s story, like so many others, is disturbing and fascinating in that he seemed like an immigrant success story up until the point that he murdered his fellow citizens. The interviews with childhood friends call into question what we can ever truly know about other people, and whether or not there is a way to prevent future Tsarnaevs from becoming monsters.

The aftermath of evil: The moment of the bombing
One of the most moving stories is that of Tsarnaev’s former wrestling coach and mentor, Peter Payack. Payack had been standing close to the finish line when the pressure cooker bombs built by the Tsarnaev brothers went off. He lived through the horror and grief that surrounded the following days, and the anxiety of the citywide lockdown. But then he realized that the person responsible for all of these terrible events was “a kid we mentored and loved like a son.” His sentiments are echoed by all of those who had thought they were close to the boy they called “Jahar:” it just couldn’t be real; it couldn’t be him.

Tsarnaev’s story is in no way unique, and reveals a troubling pattern in those who have tried to attack America in the name of religion since 9/11. In the known terrorist attack attempts like one in Times Square and the Manhattan subway, the person responsible showed little to no sign of their radicalization to the point of extremism. People go through religious awakenings all the time in, whether they are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or any other faith; radicalization is easily mistaken for an increased commitment to piety, and those who do decide to strengthen their faith are usually praised, not suspected by their communities.

In Tsarnaev’s case, the article shows the life of a kid who had been beaten down by life: parents gone, no money, studying at a second rate college, and dealing drugs just to get by. He seemed to become more and more dependent on older brother Tamerlan, whose radicalization is easier to document. It’s a sad story, admittedly, soured by the fact that kids go through that and worse every day and yet don’t indiscriminately murder civilians. Yet it does reveal a socioeconomic aspect to the motivations to become a terrorist.

Perhaps one of the most chilling quotes in the article comes from a local education advocate Wick Sloane, describing kids like Tsarnaev from immigrant backgrounds. Disillusioned about America as the land of opportunity, they look for connections, any connections to a community they left behind. When they see this community harmed by US policies, this compounds with the alienation and resentment they already feel into anger that clearly can quickly be turned to violence. In the words of Sloane, “I'm actually kind of surprised it's taken so long for one of these kids to set off a bomb.”

Among security studies scholars, there are wide divisions over what they believe motivates an “ordinary” terrorist or rebel to commit violence. While the top echelons of terrorist groups may indeed believe their own religious dogma, oftentimes they are simply using radical beliefs to tap into a willing pool of adherents. At the same time, these adherents often have motivations beyond the spiritual for joining terrorist groups. Many have “nothing left to lose” due to poverty and lack of opportunity, and thus sacrificing their own life for a cause at least gives that life some meaning. Oftentimes the standing their family gains in the community in the aftermath of their violence is a concrete and sought-after dividend. Had he been studying at a school that actually challenged him, for instance, would Tsarnaev had jumped on his brother’s extremist bandwagon?

Like any worthwhile piece of journalism, the Rolling Stone article leaves more questions than it does answers. The fact that Tsarnaev cried for two days after he wakes in the hospital following his arrest seems to bring comfort to his friends who were interviewed, but as the article’s writer points out, none of us know why he was crying. None of us will ever truly know the motivations behind Tsarnaev becoming a terrorist, nor will we know if he feels any remorse. The task now is to understand what we can know about the roots of evil, and use every tool at our disposal to stamp them out. If we do not, just as Sloane fears, there will be more Dzhokhars, more bombs, and more heart wrenching loss.

1 comment:

  1. Very well written and reasoned, Vicky, and very glad you didn't judge that "book" by its cover.