The Myth of the Monster

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:

Rolling Stone Boston Marathon Bombing

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.

One thought on “The Myth of the Monster

  1. I think this controversy is more about the actual cover photo than the article contained in the magazine. While I doubt that Rolling Stone magazine has quite the pop culture relevance today that it enjoyed in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, there is still something significant about being on the cover of Rolling Stone. I think the concern is more in creating in creating an iconic pop culture image of a man who perpetrated a horrific act of violence. Tsarnaev is already on his way to achieving a kind of ‘cult hero’ status. Perhaps the concern is not so much about a sympathetic portrayal of the man himself as it is about creating a poster child for religiously motivated violence around the world.

    When I saw the photo for this cover I was reminded of that iconic image of Che Guevara that graces so many college dorm rooms. The magazine could have chosen any of a variety of images to represent this story, some would argue. Why did they chose a ‘glamorous’ picture that seems to portray the young man as a sex symbol? (As I understand it, this photograph was already in wide circulation and not one of theirs, so they could have chosen any image). In a culture like ours images are powerful. Magazines like Rolling Stone know this and exploit it. Was their intention to contribute to the political debate? Or were they trying to create controversy and sell some magazines? (I can’t remember the last time anyone talked about Rolling Stone.) For better or worse, this young man is viewed in many places around the world as a hero and freedom fighter.Could this image be used in the ways it was not intended? Could this inspire others to commit similar acts in the hopes that they achieve this status (not just thinking terrorists, but also other criminals)? Given the power of image in a media obsessed culture, is it possible that this image has to potential to take on a life of its own? The combination of the photo and the iconic power of the Rolling Stone cover makes this a fascinating question.

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