Both Slate and the New Yorker argue persuasively that the Rolling Stone cover image for its profile of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings, is a useful deconstruction of the idea that criminality will out itself on the face of the perpetrator. “The cover presents a stark contrast with our usual image of terrorists,” Mark Joseph Stern wrote in Slate. “It asks, ‘What did we expect to see in Tsarnaev? What did we hope to see?’ The answer, most likely, is a monster, a brutish dolt with outward manifestations of evil. What we get instead, however, is the most alarming sight of all: a boy who looks like someone we might know.” And Ian Crouch argued that “The stories didn’t match the crime, either: the pot-smoking kid, the skateboarder, the student at the diverse Cambridge high school, the anonymous undergrad at the state college. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s older brother, Tamerlan, fit our expectations much better. He looked older and angrier, and the accompanying biographical information was consistent with the appearance: he was alienated, radicalized, adrift, and dangerous.”
The specific expectation that’s most confounded by these images, though, is that of the race of the perpetrators. It’s easy to think of the Tsarnaevs as foreign when you’re just looking at their names, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar, which he bowdlerized to Jahar, so it would be easier for his American friends to pronounce, and Janet Reitman reported in Rolling Stone, sometimes to Jizz and Joe. “If he had a hint of radical thoughts, then why would he change the spelling of his name so that more Americans in school could pronounce it?” one of Dzhokar’s friends told Reitman. But looking only at their names rather than at their faces, whichever ones either Tsarnaev might have used at the time, the Tsarnaevs foreignness came to the fore. That’s in keeping with the accepted understanding of terrorism in contemporary America, as a phenomenon perpetuated by men, particularly men of color, particularly men of Arab abstraction, from outside of the United States. Mass killings committed by white men in movie theaters, at elementary schools, or at public forums with members of Congress are crime, a distinct territory.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s selfie, which Rolling Stone was hardly the first outlet to publish, may have struck a nerve this time because it appeared in a context that’s normally reserved for figures of cultural admiration, whether they’re rock stars, movie stars, or star politicians—though criminals and raconteurs have occupied that position as well. It was an uncomfortable reminder for some observers that Dzhokhar’s fans are capable of seeing his physical form as well as his bad acts, and that for some of them, his good looks outweigh the pain and suffering he’s accused of causing so many other people. In that case, the discomfort is less about Tsarnaev’s appearance, or the context of this particular picture’s appearance on the cover of Rolling Stone, but on other people’s reaction to him. But part of the reaction to the image itself is that it provides a reminder that an act we’ve defined as terrorism can be committed by someone whose appearance–and whose relative whiteness–might normally get his bad acts classed as crime.
A similar dynamic was at work after Trayvon Martin was killed by George Zimmerman, in what Jelani Cobb describes as the need “to assassinate a dead teen-ager’s character, to turn him from a slight seventeen-year-old into a rapper in his thirties with facial tattoos.” The assassination to which he refers is a photo that was widely circulated in the wake of Martin’s death, that was supposed to demonstrate the potential menace he represented to Zimmerman. The man in the photo was more than a decade older than Martin, physically larger than the boy, who hadn’t finished growing, and had tattoos on his face, hands, and neck. When the real Trayvon Martin didn’t match the image of the kind of man who some observers would deem killable by virtue of his size and body modifications they’d deem menacing, someone tried to turn him into another human being entirely so the narrative would continue to function.
This is why cracks in the facade prove so unnerving to people who want to maintain certain policy programs. If you want to continue New York City’s Stop-And-Frisk program, then you have a vested interest in it being true that criminals are disproportionately black. If you want to continue singling out people of Arab origin for additional screening at airport security, the only way you can maintain that the policy is rational is if it is actually true that only people of Arab extraction commit acts of terrorism. Making Trayvon Martin or Dzhokhar Tsarnaev look frightening may be personally comforting for people who want to believe that no one they know and like could be capable of dreadful crimes. But making Trayvon Martin or Dzhokhar Tsarnaev meet the racial expectations for their experiences is a way of propping up policies with far broader implications.