My TIME.com piece today on the Rolling Stone cover controversy:
The knee jerk boycotts in response to this week’s Rolling Stone cover story about Boston Marathon bomber, Dzhokhar ‘Jahar’ Tsarnaev, are helping no one. If we want to break the cycle of mass homicide and terror, we need to face the personal histories of men like the Tsarnaev brothers in all their discomfiting complexity and horror, and this includes not only putting up with attractive photos but also giving more subtle thought to their circumstances. The anguished reaction to the article—”I just want to throw up,” proclaimed conservative commentator Michelle Malkin on Fox News— taps a deep vein of revulsion in American culture toward the possibility that mass murder can in any way be explainable. It feels distasteful and outrageous to seek “answers” to something as awful as mass terror. But to understand the terror is not to forgive or forget it.
When we distance ourselves from our shared humanity and treat mass murderers as removed from our daily lives, we don’t have to examine the more prosaic factors that can contribute to the violence in our midst: bad genes, child neglect, untreated mental illness, too-easy access to assault weapons, political and religious indoctrination, and the like. Of course, the great majority of people in depressing circumstances do not become a mass murderer, but few mass murderers don’t have a laundry list of extenuating circumstances or grievances. We can abhor them, but we can’t completely ignore them.
Some have suggested that the Rolling Stone editors simply wanted to boost sales. This misses the point. The cover photo, a self-portrait that had actually been in circulation for months, strikes a nerve precisely because there was no trick, no deception to either white-wash or glorify the murders. On the contrary, the story was written to reveal, not conceal, the true nightmare of April 15th. Normalcy is part of the story of the Boston Marathon bombers; we can’t run away from that. Dzhokhar was a young man who took pictures of himself, just like millions of teenagers. There was some genuine goodness in Tsarnaev’s heart, according to reasonable people who knew him best, and he experienced pain and trauma in his young life too. Acknowledging these facts doesn’t automatically label a person a love struck ‘fan’ or a disgrace to humanity…