Last week, the New York Times ran a big story above the fold on the front page raising serious questions about the failure of Massachusetts authorities to scrutinize Tamerlan Tsarnaev in the Sept. 12, 2011 killing in Waltham, Mass., of three of his associates. Had police given Tsarnaev a closer look in that case—and, who knows, charged him—odds are he would not have been able to plot terrorist blasts at the Boston Marathon.
This week, Rolling Stone came out with a long, deeply-reported piece by Janet Reitman tracing the arc of Tsarnaev’s younger brother, Dzhokhar, from a supremely chill Cambridge teenager to an accomplice in the bombings. The cover image was one of the few close-up photographs available of Dzhokhar, an alluring selfie with eerie echoes of Rolling Stone’s iconic Jim Morrison shot.
We know now which of these two pieces would provoke Boston, and it’s not the one holding accountable people in authority who were in a position to prevent the Marathon horror. It’s the one with the picture. The Boston Herald ran the Rolling Stone cover on its front page today with a giant X through it and the headline “DUMB AS A ROCK.” Mayor Tom Menino wrote Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner, “Your August 3 cover rewards a terrorist with celebrity treatment,” and demanded to know why it hadn’t featured Boston first responders instead, while Governor Deval Patrick called the cover “out of taste.” The Dropkick Murphys, the band behind the unofficial (and excellent) anthem of feisty Boston, tweeted out: “Rolling Stone you should be ashamed. How about one of the courageous victims on your cover instead of this loser scum bag!” CVS, which is based in Rhode Island, took the Rolling Stone issue off its shelves, and Walgreens did the same. As some around the blogosphere started to wonder if this wasn’t all a wee bit of an overreaction, the Boston Globe’s Joanna Weiss pushed back:
The state of the city right now is supreme irritation, and people are reacting precisely as they should… Bostonians dutifully accepted the invitation to get mad, expressing outrage through sarcasm, social media rants, and boycott declarations. No one was talking about censorship. People here understand that a magazine has every right to put what it wants on its cover, and that CVS has an equal right to decide it’s not worth the trouble to stock Rolling Stone on its shelves this month. Boston’s reaction wasn’t “You have hurt us irreparably as a city.” It was “We’d really rather you hadn’t just stuck your thumb in our collective eye.”
This isn’t about “Boston Strong,” which has lost all meaning by now, anyway — it started getting out of hand once it morphed into a sports chant, and exited the world of reason the moment the first “Boston Strong Mom” shirt was sold on Zazzle. No, this situation has reminded us of who we really are: Not a group of people prone to blind sloganeering, but a unified bunch, proud of our identity, standing firm against major harm and minor offense. Thanks, Rolling Stone editors. You’ve reminded us what we’re doing here. And also, get out of town.
Get out of town? I’m not sure Jann Wenner or any other Rolling Stone honcho was in Boston to begin with.
There is a serious debate to be had about whether a cover like the Rolling Stone one serves to glamorize violence. I’m inclined to side with my colleague John Judis and others in arguing in the magazine’s defense—the piece is a truly illuminating profile that really does help us understand how this once-amiable boy became an accused mass killer, and it selected for its cover a picture that was suited to the piece’s theme: Tsarnaev as the tousle-haired golden boy whom no one suspected of inner darkness.
But I’ll leave that debate about fame and art and violence to others for now. What I’m struck by for the moment is the way in which Boston—or at least its avatars in the media and government and business—is casting its upset over the cover. The debate over the iconography of violence is as old as cave drawings and church frescoes, but to hear it told over the past 24 hours, it was as if the cover was so galling because it violated some unique Boston essence: “our collective eye.” I am a western Massachusetts native who grew up visiting and admiring Boston and heck, just ran a Fourth of July 5K where the race T-shirts carried the “Boston Strong” motto even though we were 135 miles west of the city. But I’ve never entirely grasped, or been comfortable with, this Boston exceptionalism.
What can look at moments like healthy community pride and solidarity can shade awfully quickly into either tribal defensiveness or sentimental boosterism—or, worst of all, a combination of the two. Today’s Boston has traveled a long way from its days as a gritty working-class warren where Whitey Bulger and Louise Day Hicks held sway, but, if the ongoing romanticizing of that era is any sign, it is often reluctant to acknowledge the transformation. And what better way to conjure up its shot-and-a-beer past, in a time when two Back Bay parking spots go for $560,000, than to cock its fists at a New York magazine. The reaction is understandable—the city did suffer a grievous shock, three people were killed and many others maimed and injured at a cherished event. But for that very reason, you’d think Bostonians would want to better comprehend how it had come to pass, how a good-looking boy in their midst whom all the girls loved had learned to hate.
*Update, 5 p.m.: In another act of outraged solidarity, Boston magazine has just published leaked state police photos of Tsarnaev as he looked when he was found in the motorboat in Watertown. Yes, we get it: he was not so pretty after being shot multiple times in a massive manhunt.
Alec MacGillis is a New Republic senior editor. Follow him @AlecMacGillis.