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On the cover of the Rolling Stone: Evil in soft focus

 Well we’re big rock singers, we got golden fingers and we’re loved everywhere we go. We sing about beauty and we sing about truth, at $10,000 a show. We take all kinds of pills to give us all kind of thrills, but the thrill we’ve never known is the thrill that’ll getcha when you get your picture on the cover of the Rolling Stone. — Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show, 1972


The biggest question Bostonians still have about the bombings in their city on Patriot Day is the one they’ve had since right after terror suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was arrested in April: What turns a kid who was not just loved but beloved — the favorite of multiple teachers and coaches, and of many classmates — into someone who could look his victims in the eye before blowing them up, then head off to the gym?

Janet Reitman’s Rolling Stone piece about Jahar, as the younger Tsarnaev brother was known to his American friends, is an earnest attempt to answer that question. Some critics insist that it’s mostly the glam photo on the cover that offended them, and it does look like a PR shot for a member of a boy band.

But that Reitman’s been getting death threats and around-the-clock calls on her cell phone from strangers who say they hope she dies of a terror attack, too, suggests that the pushback is about a lot more than a soft-focus selfie. And how is terrorizing her standing up against terror? She isn’t giving interviews, but said on her Facebook page that she was surprised and scared by the reaction.

Saying that Boston is protective of its own is like saying that Washington summers can be just a tad on the warm side; Bostonians want the feelings of the victims of those attacks put first, second and third, and who can blame them? One of the women who lost a leg in the blasts told me she didn’t want to talk about the Rolling Stone piece, and it’s not hard to fathom why: In an earlier interview, she said she and others working so hard to recover were husbanding all their energies for healing, and would not be giving anything more to the bombers than they had already taken.

MSNBC host Lawrence O'Donnell, left, as Boston Mayor Tom Menino, right, enters the interfaith healing service after the bombings in a wheelchair. (Melinda Henneberger/Washington Post) MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell, left, as Boston Mayor Tom Menino, right, enters the interfaith healing service after the bombings in a wheelchair. (Melinda Henneberger/Washington Post)

There’s been a volcano of reaction on the victims’ behalf, though; their governor and mayor have declared themselves appalled, and a number of stores have decided not to stock this issue of the magazine. In other words, Rolling Stone must be thrilled with all the free publicity.

MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell, who is from Boston, joined the bonfire by claiming that the piece “spends most of its time in romantic reminiscence of what a great kid Jahar was, as described by many of his friends. Now, I talked to many of those kids myself on the streets of Cambridge,” O’Donnell added, “and I found them — as the article does — completely mystified about how their nice guy friend could possibly have been involved with the bombing. I, therefore, found them ultimately rather uninteresting people to talk to once that point was made.” Then again, O’Donnell often finds many of the guests on his show uninteresting people to talk to — or to listen to, anyway.

I don’t agree with everything Reitman wrote, but don’t see that her profile romanticizes Jahar. The personality profile is, however, an inherently friendly form, by which I mean that hostility is a barrier to figuring out what makes any story subject tick. No matter how scathing the piece turns out to be, the truth is that a writer has to feel some empathy for his subject to make such a story work.

Yes, previous Rolling Stone cover boys include Charles Manson and O.J. Simpson, yet the fact that most covers do go to entertainers made the decision to put Tsarnaev there automatically controversial. And as understandable — and predictable, too — as the outrage is, I’m still glad Rolling Stone ran the piece — and continued to work on a puzzle we’ll spend years trying to fit together.

Jeff Seglin, who writes a weekly ethics column called The Right Thing, and is a public policy lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School, says the reaction is a little like that of the Polish peasant in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s ‘Enemies, A Love Story,’ who after coming through the Holocaust is shocked to learn that there are books on the subject of Hitler: “They write books about such swine?”

Seglin feels the cover photo is journalistically defensible — and in fact, is perfectly in keeping with the story’s point that this was a once-ordinary kid gone terribly wrong. It’s defensible if, that is, the magazine’s editors at least grappled with the ethics of how using that photo might upset bombing victims and their survivors.

I’m guessing Boston Mayor Tom Menino was right when he said the controversy was part of the magazine’s marketing strategy. But is it wrong to want work you’re proud of to be widely read?

At the time of the bombings, I was living in Cambridge, where my son was enrolled in the high school Jahar and his older brother Tamerlan had attended, and I do know how much pain was inflicted on a city I came to care about and admire, too, in my short time there.

But if publishing the photo was so outrageous, why was it OK for critics to share it all over social media? They shouldn’t sell Boston so short. Because ultimately, as Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham wrote, her city is way too tough to be knocked around by any picture in a magazine.

Melinda Henneberger

Melinda Henneberger is a Post political writer and She the People anchor who spent last semester as a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center. Follow her on Twitter at @MelindaDC.





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