Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's Face and the Power of Images

A lot of people are very, very angry over the fact that Rolling Stone put on their cover a selfie that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev took (a photo that appeared in many newspapers) to accompany a long feature article about him. "The Bomber," the headline reads, with the subhed, "How a Popular, Promising Student Was Failed By His Family, Fell Into Radical Islam and Became a Monster." Nobody's mad about the article, which is pretty well described by that subhed, and isn't too different from many other articles written since the bombing. But the cover is getting people riled up; Boston Mayor Tom Menino wrote a letter to the magazine expressing his outrage, Boston's police commissioner says, "I'm disgusted by it," the news has been filled with person-on-the-street interviews with Bostonians expressing their displeasure, and stores like CVS have announced that they won't be stocking the issue.

The people I've seen aren't having an easy time articulating what it is about the cover they find problematic; some say it "glorifies" Tsarnaev or treats him like a celebrity, while others like Menino say that the magazine ought to be writing stories about the victims. Which of course is an absurd objection; it's not as though we can't have both, and there have been who knows how many thousands of stories written about the victims. So what's really going on here?

On the most basic level, this reminds me a lot of the days after September 11, when discussion of what produces and motivates terrorists would inevitably be met in some quarters with "We don't need to understand them, we need to kill them!" as though any attempt at understanding was just a cover for siding with the terrorists against America. That's kind of like saying that a football coach reviewing tapes of his team's next opponent to prepare for the game is siding with the other team, but the people making that argument weren't exactly the sharpest tools in our national shed. But something different happens when we start talking about images and the power people believe they have to shape what we believe.

This has come up again and again in recent years, with questions about whether and how to show images of those we lionize and those we hate. The common assumption is that images have a unique power to influence people, a power that words—or facts themselves—lack. To listen to those condemning Rolling Stone, you'd almost think that they're genuinely worried that people will see the cover and think, "Huh, he looks like a regular kid. Maybe it wasn't such a bad thing that he set those bombs after all."

And whenever we have a controversy over what images should be shown, that assumption of their power to persuade is either the explicit text or the subtext. During the Iraq War, we debated whether news organizations ought to show images of American casualties and Iraqi civilian casualties. The former was treated as a desecration, particularly if their faces were shown, while the latter was treated as though it was necessarily a service to the enemy. The Bush administration fought fiercely to prevent the media from showing the bodies of American dead, even within flag-draped coffins, on the assumption that if the public got visual confirmation that soldiers were dying, support for the war would inevitably wane.

But back to the question of faces. If Rolling Stone had shown Tsarnaev in any of a hundred other ways—in a surveillance photo from the day of the bombing, in a group picture with his classmates or family, let's say—I doubt anyone would have gotten upset. But because the photo is just his face, it presents him as an individual and a human being. That doesn't mean that they're trying to invite sympathy for him or his actions, but it does push against the most simplistic reactions ("Fry him!"). And that's the whole point of the story they wrote, which was an attempt to understand where he came from and what led him ultimately to kill and maim.

Lots of people want simplicity. It can be comforting to think that there's nothing that needs to be understood, that somehow Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev blinked into existence on the morning of the bombing to perform their evil deed and we don't need to know anything more. Articles should be written about the victims but not the perpetrators, because we want the victims to be full human beings, individuals, while we'd rather if the perpetrators were just types to which we don't have to give much thought.

Images do have power; they can produce heightened emotional reactions, persist in memory, and in some cases persuade us to believe something we were resistant to. If a picture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's face reminds us that he was indeed a human being and not just a cartoon, and that brings us a little closer to understanding what can make someone do something so monstrous, then we should be willing to look at it.

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