The latest Rolling Stone cover has generated a lot of controversy. Critics are saying that it glamorizes Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and gives him “rock star treatment.” Whether it does or not, I think something else is also at work here. Let’s call it “The Myth of the Monster.”
It goes something like this. There are monsters in the world today. Monsters are those people who cause pain and suffering to such a degree that we can’t imagine them having anything in common with normal people like us. It’s helpful for us to imagine the Monsters as different in every possible way. Monsters are pure evil and if they are completely foreign to us (it helps if this is literal as well as figurative) then we can imagine ourselves as pretty much blameless concerning the problems of the world today.
So when this happens:
It’s a little discomforting.
When a young man who looks like the friend of our teenage son, or one of the kids at our church youth group turns out to be responsible for terror, pain, and killing on a mass scale then The Myth of the Monster begins to crumble. When friends and classmates, including the nephew of NPR’s Robin Young of Tsarnaev are shocked that he could do something like this, then we start to wonder if the world is so easily divided into normal and good on one side, and different and depraved on the other.
One of the reasons I am a Christian and a Presbyterian is because those traditions teach me that The Myth of the Monster is a lie. I am not entirely good. There are hurtful and destructive things that I have done in the past and will do in the future. The same can be said for every person on the planet. This isn’t to say the we are all bombers just waiting to happen, but we need to acknowledge that our actions (and inaction) are often not as pure and good as we’d like to believe.
The flip side of this is what the Rolling Stone cover confronts us with: Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was not entirely evil. There were people in his life who he loved and who loved him. He had friends who thought he was fun to be around, a good listener and a caring person. He did things and acted in ways that would look perfectly normal from most of our teenage children.
In the big picture the cover of Rolling Stone doesn’t really matter, although I do understand why it upsets some people. But maybe for a moment it can help us realize that labeling and/or dismissing Tsarnaev as an incomprehensible monster also conveniently frees us from confronting the good and the bad in our own lives.