Despite boycotts and moral outrage across the country, the August 1 issue of Rolling Stone magazine, published last month with a picture of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the cover, was a hit with readers. The numbers don't sound huge in these waning days of print media, but the numbers were more than twice those from this time last year for the magazine. So the terrorists have won again, or have they?
The outrage was based on a feeling that, regardless of the content of the cover story, putting Tsarnaev's face on the cover of a magazine was giving him a degree of recognition that terrorists and mass killers should not receive. Worse than a reward, the added fame Tsarnaev may have gained would prove an incentive, some feared, for future terrorists. This is what you hear anytime someone wants to report on a terrorist or mass murderer and -- worse! -- wants to advertise the report. It's the same attitude that has always accused Hollywood of "glamorizing" criminals no matter how closely movies toed the "crime does not pay" line. The libertarian writer Virginia Postrel has the best answer to this notion that I've seen so far, which was simply to write (in Time magazine) that any glamour derived from Rolling Stone is superfluous to someone like Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. More to the point, she implies that critics of Rolling Stone confuse the true glamour of terrorism with the celebrity a magazine cover might give an amoklaufer, however posthumously. "Glamour is about much more than celebrity," Postrel writes. The glamour of terrorism is more about the promise of belonging, the presumed proof of manhood, than it is about winning fame. The idea of posthumous fame isn't entirely irrelevant to terrorists, or else suicide bombers would not record farewell statements for public consumption. But jihadis presumably believe that their real reward is something other than the fame they earn in this world. Postrel seems to believe it unlikely that someone would become a terrorist simply because they saw Tsarnaev's face on a magazine cover. That sounds right to me. Would someone become a plain apolitical amoklaufer in the hope of getting similar fame? Again, fame itself seems an insufficient motive -- and in our decadence there are many less dangerous ways to become famous. If people want to discourage terrorism, Postrel says they should figure out how to dispel the "magic" that makes it attractive to people like Tsarnaev, presumably so they don't need to wage jihad to feel that they belong, or feel like men.
Inevitably, Postrel fails to take seriously whether someone like Tsarnaev, identifying with a Muslim ummah, has legitimate grievances, most likely making the commonplace assumption that grievances don't "justify" terrorism, whether they cause them or not. That ought to be a part of any discussion of terrorism, but to be fair, Postrel's task was only to refute the hysterical claims that Rolling Stone had glamourized terrorism in some significant or genuinely influential way. There was another argument against the cover, however: the feeling that any publicity given a perpetrator of mass violence is somehow an insult to his victims. I can understand why that argument would be ignored. All it tells me is that some people need something to be outraged about the way they need air to breathe.