There is nothing wrong with Tsarnaev's face

Does this picture of Hitler make you like him? Does this picture of Hitler make you like him?

I dislike Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's, that dislike contingent on his guilt yet to be proven (but very likely, it seems). His picture on the cover of Rolling Stone makes a point that struck me during the mayhem in Boston, and it is a good point. Those who reacted to this photograph negatively are seeing this situation in the first order, missing the point, missing the nuance. They are operating at the bodice-ripping romance novel level of thinking, not even the semi-complex Hercule Poirot level, of thinking. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts cop who released the "real" pictures of Tsarnaev violated the rules of his job, and he'll presumably take some heat for that (though I couldn't possibly care less about that) but more importantly he acted poorly and in a way that sets us back, as a country, in our thinking about terrorism.

Hitler never grew out of his Terrible Twos, apparently Hitler never grew out of his Terrible Twos, apparently

Consider Adolf Hitler. I went looking on Google Images for a picture of Adolf Hitler to see if I could find a picture in which he didn't look like the absolute monster that he was. There were a few photos of him chatting with his fellow monsters, uniformed, being Nazis, but they weren't very good photos. I found a picture of him as a toddler and a picture of him wearing bunny ears (which I assume is a fake, but do correct me if I'm wrong because that would be interesting). But only the toddler picture counts. Yes, folks, any toddler could ultimately become Adolf Hitler (probably by never growing out of the Terrible Twos, but that's another story.) And yes, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev could be anybody.

My daughter, just a bit younger than the Tsarnaev brothers, headed off to Boston one day and was actually in the air not yet landed at Logan when the bombs went off at the marathon. For the entire day, I kept in touch with her via text messaging. She and her mom made it to their hotel in South Boston after hackney services were restored, though they had to spend a fair amount of time in the airport first. Over the next couple of days, the drama we all know about unfolded.

This perfectly nice looking guy is on trial in Boston, right now, for some 17 murders (and more). This perfectly nice looking guy is on trial in Boston, right now, for some 17 murders (and more).

Somewhere during this time, Julia noted that had she been in the same high school with the Tsarnaev's, she'd probably be their friends. This is not because she hangs around with terrorists. Rather, she has a long history, since early childhood, of association with the part of the world they come from, having lived in west/central Asia and gone to school there. Also, she lived in a country that, like Tsarnaev's native land, was oppressed by the Soviets and since by the Russians. There would be many connections between them and they'd probably attend each other's graduation parties. When I heard about the Rolling Stone cover, I thought of that, and thought it important to make the point that the Tsarnaevs are American Terrorists and emerged from our culture just as much as form somewhere else (though obviously it is more complicated than that).

We live in a culture where the visual trope rules. If a famous beauty is found by photographers with tussled hair, cellulite, or some food spilled on her shirt, that's news. If a teabagger wants to depict Obama as a bad guy, he darkens the image because that racist trick works on a lot of people. They say (though I don't assume it to be true) that Kennedy beat Nixon because Nixon had a bad five o'clock shadow. And so on. Massachusetts Trooper Sgt. Sean Murphy saw a picture of a bad guy that didn't make him look like a bad guy and felt the need to risk his own career and violate the rules of his job, and probably violate his profession's ethics, in order to "correct" that so the rest of us could go on hating Tsarnaev properly. He was wrong to do that. Nobody decided that it was OK to blow up people at the Boston Marathon because Tsarnaev looks like a hipster when he's not all shot up lying in a boat in Watertown.

Also, this: If we insist that how you look has to match what you do, what you've done, what you might do, the kind of person you are, then we are fully subscribing to the worst in human nature. Think about it. If you are a woman and you wear certain cloths ... If you have a certain color skin ... If you seem to have a certain expression on your face ...

Get over it, people. There is nothing wrong with Tsarnaev's face. There is something wrong with Tsarnaev. These things are both true. Embrace the complexity that is reality.

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Good article, and I agree pretty much with what you're saying.

OTOH, you could say that RS was intentionally pushing buttons to promote sales, partly by glamorizing Tsarnaev. There are a couple of questionable tendencies in certain segments of pop culture; to glamorize jerks, gangsters, criminals and also to go over the top in terms of editorial bad taste in order to be edgy (as in some fashion layouts).

Frankly I find the stir interesting for its amplification in an age when there's so much visual cacophany that response tends to be indifferent to any one piece of noise.

By Obstreperous A… (not verified) on 23 Jul 2013 #permalink

This perfectly nice looking guy is on trial in Boston, right now, for some 17 murders (and more).

If that's who I think it is, his brother was president of the Massachusetts Senate when I lived there. People seemed to accept that that's just how things were: two brothers each reaching the top of his chosen field.

It's been like that for a long time. People in English-speaking cultures want to be able to look at a face and say that yes, that person is a criminal (or an upstanding citizen--it works both ways). Nor do I think it's limited to the West: there was a minor scandal at the Beijing Olympics over a child singer who had the look the organizers wanted lip synching over a recording by a child who had the voice they wanted, but not the looks.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 23 Jul 2013 #permalink

Another one who looked nice but wasn't was Ted Bundy--handsome guy, even preppy-looking. I'm sure that face lured more young women to their deaths than would have happened if he'd been snaggle-toothed and unkempt. Lots of people seem to equate good-looking with being nice or friendly and those who are not good-looking are seen as everything from not as smart to not as nice. The old adage "don't judge a book by its cover" is still true, though many still seem to think that saying refers to only books and not to people. Maybe we should change that adage to "don't judge a soul by its face."

By Carolyn H (not verified) on 23 Jul 2013 #permalink

Good points, Carolyn. And John Wayne Gacy was a clown at times, everybody trusts clowns, right? Well, maybe not. But still, yes, I agree.

Compare and contrast, as they say in art history, the Madness of Hercules, and Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald.

By David Formanek (not verified) on 23 Jul 2013 #permalink

People don't want to believe, let alone be reminded, that the face of evil can be that of an ordinary person.

I'm with you on this. The cover makes the legitimate point that cute kids can be murderous monsters, and vice-versa, which is a lesson we as a culture desperately need to learn. This, regardless of whatever editorial intent the Rolling Stone had in mind (and the whole "edgy" thing is rapidly getting old).

And how many people have been conned out of their savings by sociopaths who happen to also have been born with good looks or a good voice or various communicative skills?

Re. Carolyn H at #4: "Don't judge a soul by its face." Exactly. Perfect. Instant contagious meme. (And atheists can also use that one, by way of the word "soul" being a metaphor for "mind and character.")

Well, I think the whole kerfuffle is overblown. But for the sake of discussion, I'm not convinced that the book-cover-judgement approach adds much insight to the conversation.

Suppose that context may have something to do with it. For one thing, the original of that photo or ones like it have already been all over the media without this particular kind of controversy. And you have to wonder whether or not the police photographer, who is after all a professional photographer, may have some insight into images that isn't necessarily obvious to a blasé observer (their production, meaning, interpretation, and impacts). Why just assume that he doesn't, for instance, understand the purpose of the rules he broke? Or that he (or others) just can't understand the relation of books to covers? 

How would that photo have been handled on the covers of other publications, and would the reaction have been the same? Maybe not. On The New Yorker maybe some sly, cocktail hour cartoon comment on hipster irony. The WSJ: a small black and white faux engraving. And so on. The possibilities are endless. The Rolling Stone blew it up, cropped, masked, adjusted its tone, and gave it an in-your-face setting that also gets used to showcase rock stars.

I understand that scientist types may not be very passionate about art, but for all that's been written about it over the centuries, there must be something interesting left to say about a given image and its implications by those specially trained in analysis.

By Obstreperous A… (not verified) on 24 Jul 2013 #permalink