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The Rolling Stone Cover and the 'New Ideological Threat'

The cover of Rolling Stone (8/13), featuring a self-portrait of Dzhokhar Tsaernav taken weeks before the Boston bombing, has fueled a strong backlash. Discussing the cover, Fox News' Lisa Daftari (7/18/13) said:

In the aftermath of 9/11, if you look back over a decade ago, this country had an awakening, an understanding, that we have a new ideological threat that is on our soil. People became aware. But we've since gone very far from that, almost gone too far from that. We are almost becoming overcompensating, for fear of being Islamophobic. Political correctness is leading us to put a terrorist on the cover of a national magazine like this.

In the same segment, Fox's Trace Gallagher said, "The question many are asking is why the magazine is making him look like a teen heartthrob instead of a terrorist and alleged killer?"

That question raises another: How do you make someone look like "a terrorist and alleged killer"?

Gallagher's suggestion that he should look more like a "terrorist," brings to mind racial profiling, a form of which the Week magazine (5/2/13FAIR TV5/3/13) was accused of after their cover featured a controversial drawing of the Tsarnaev brothers. The Week darkened their skin and played up stereotypical ethnic features, prompting Gawker  (5/2/13) to wryly note, "If the terrorists won't do us the courtesy of being brown, no matter–we'll just make them brown, instead."

But clearly, for the scare-mongers the "new ideological threat" is not just terrorism, but Islam itself, a view that casts all Muslims as suspect (Extra!, 8/13).

Invoking "ideological threats" to create fear, an "awakening" in Daftari's words, like the Red Scares of old, Islam has become the new issue right-wingers and other hawks rally around. It's an effective organizing tool.

The Rolling Stone cover flies in the face the preferred stereotype. In age, race, and affect, Tsarnaev doesn't fit the image we have been trained to expect. Thus the cover draws unwanted attention to this Islamophobic expectation.

"It's Tsarnaev's very normalcy and niceness that is the most monstrous and terrifying thing about him," Rolling Stone writer (and Boston native) Matt Taibbi (7/19/13), says:

The story [Rolling Stone journalist] Janet [Reitman] wrote about the modern terrorist is that you can't see him coming. He's not walking down the street with a scary beard and a red X through his face. He looks just like any other kid.

When the Rolling Stones cover photo was originally published by the New York Times in May (5/5/13), Nathan Jurgenson, a writer for the tech-sociology blog Cyborgology (4/6/13), said, "The bomber selfie forces us to confront that violence doesn't always come from an other."

But fear mongers are up in arms, since the cover and the accompanying article exploring how Tsarnaev went from being "just like any other kid" to becoming an alleged mass murderer bucks their formula. To them, there is no use delving into his peaceful past to learn what turned him into a brutal killer. Where Rolling Stone saw a compelling story, Fox saw a threat to its ideology.

However, considering the thousands of innocent lives lost and the billions our country has spent trying to "make the world safe for democracy," shouldn't we be interested in how someone was radicalized to the point of violence? That was the real, stated goal of Rolling Stone's investigation. Getting to shake the tenets of traditionalist politics in the process was just an added bonus.

© 2021 Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR)

Emily Masters

Emily Masters is a student at the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College and a staff contributor for the Indypendent.

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