Fear of a photo: Rolling Stone did nothing wrong

July 18, 2013

I imagine the Taliban couldn’t see what all the fuss was about when it blew up the Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001 because it found them “idolatrous.”

And I’m sure Walgreens, CVS, Rite Aid and other retailers are fine with their decision not to stock the latest issue of Rolling Stone because they find the magazine…well, what, exactly? In the statements I’ve seen they don’t say much about what specifically is wrong with the publication’s cover image of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Instead, they focus on the effect the photo will have on others, as if the accused Boston Marathon bomber has a basilisk stare that will turn us all to stone.

Rolling Stone's controversial cover.
Rolling Stone’s controversial cover.

Have we become so jittery as a nation, so unwilling to confront anything painful or distasteful, that we lash out at dots of ink on paper?

Critics of Rolling Stone, including Boston’s mayor and Massachusetts’s governor, say they are acting out of respect for the victims. Others say Tsarnaev is getting the “celebrity” treatment. Have they read the article? It doesn’t make him out to be a hero, but rather shows how his indefensible disaffection grew. His was a “screwed-up family,” a friend is quoted as saying, which is probably as close as we may get to understanding why the Tsarnaev brothers allegedly filled their backpacks with explosives.

And, really, is there anyone out there who was on the fence about Tsarnaev but now is firmly in the pro-Chechen terrorist camp because they happened to catch a glimpse of his face while standing in the supermarket check out line?

The new Rolling Stone also features an article about Willie Nelson. If the magazine had put a photo of Nelson on the front would we be allowed to say: “How dare Rolling Stone diminish the evil Tsarnaev did and the suffering his victims experienced by sticking Willie on the cover?”

A century from now, when the history of the last 15 years is written – of the Terrorist Wars, let’s call them – I wonder what our descendants will think. They’ll probably think we flubbed things from the start, what with our missing WMDs and color-coded terror alerts and personal data-vacuuming government agencies, our billions spent training an Afghan army that turns around and shoots at us.

And I can imagine them shaking their heads and saying: Boy, our forebears really had their priorities screwed up when they started pulling magazines from shelves because they somehow found the photos on the front of them idolatrous.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section.
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Michael S. Rosenwald · July 18, 2013