CVS did it. So did Walgreens, Kmart, 7-Eleven, Tedeschi Food Shops and a fast-growing list of other giant retailers that took one look at Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the cover of this week’s Rolling Stone and vowed it would get nowhere near their display shelves because … why?
“You know what amazes me?” asked Chris Bowe, co-owner of Longfellow Books in downtown Portland, as he stood by his magazine rack Thursday morning. A rack that the day before had a dozen issues of the latest Rolling Stone, but by then was down to just four.
“What amazes me, in this world of catastrophic climate change and nuclear weapons, is that an image and words can strike such fear in people,” Bowe continued. “And it’s born out of a certain type of ignorance that can be very, very dangerous.”
Like many people, Bowe first heard about this tempest du jour Wednesday morning on an AM talk radio program. As the airwaves crackled with knee-jerk reactions to 19-year-old Tsarnaev’s angelic image on the Rolling Stone cover, Bowe admits, his first impulse was to deep-six the red-hot issue as soon as it came off the delivery truck.
“The way talk radio made it sound, it seemed like they’d dressed him up like Jim Morrison (the late, legendary lead singer for The Doors) and they were glorifying him,” Bowe said. “Then when I came in, I was able to look at the cover and look at the bomber on the front and how it talks about (Tsarnaev) being turned into a ‘monster.’ Then I read the article …”
Ah yes, the article. An in-depth, 11,000-word profile of a kid-turned-alleged mass killer that should be required reading for anyone who looks back on the carnage at the finish line of the Boston Marathon on April 15 and wonders, “How could something like this happen?”
Take, for example, the point in the story where Tsarnaev hints to a high school friend that the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were, in his misguided opinion, justified. Notes Rolling Stone writer Janet Reitman, it’s what criminal profilers commonly call “leakage.”
“On cases where I’ve interviewed these types of people, the key is looking past their exterior and getting access to that interior, which is very hard,” explained Tom Neer, a former agent with the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit who’s now a senior associate with the counterterrorism consulting firm The Soufan Group, in an interview with Reitman. “Most people have a public persona as well as a private persona, but for many people, there’s a secret side, too. And the secret side is something that they labor hard to protect.”
Fascinating stuff. Not to mention useful in a world where a seemingly harmless kid can suddenly turn into, as Rolling Stone says right there on its cover, “a monster.”
Bowe, like most who actually have taken the time to read the Rolling Stone article, found it “really interesting and important.” At the same time, having grown up in Boston, he fully understands how raw the wound remains on the city’s psyche from an attack that occurred only 95 days ago.
“What (Tsarnaev and his now-deceased older brother, Tamerlan) did was absolutely horrible,” Bowe said. “But I think, as a country and as citizens, we need to try to figure out why this happened so we can prevent it in the future.”
In other words, this is not about, as Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show so famously crooned way back in 1973, “the thrill that’ll getcha when you get your picture on the cover of the Rollin’ Stone.”
This is serious, investigative journalism by the same magazine whose expose by Michael Hastings two years ago this month ended the career of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, then commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.
Try telling that to the handful of people (so far) who have lambasted Bowe for, as one poster said on Longfellow Books’ Facebook page, his “hugely inappropriate disrespectful choice obviously meant to illicit (sic) controversy to boost sales.”
Boost sales of what? A dozen magazines that net Bowe about 20 cents per copy?
Announces another Facebook poster: “We are launching a boycott against your store due to your action.”
It’s hardly the first time Bowe, whose website features the slogan “a fiercely independent community bookstore,” has taken heat for trusting in “the intelligence of my customers.”
Back when he sold Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses” in 1988, Bowe received actual death threats along with promises to blow his entire store to high heaven.
And when former President George W. Bush’s “Decision Points” hit the shelves in 2010, one woman told Bowe she would boycott Longfellow Books unless he moved the 481-page memoir to the fiction section.
Bowe’s answer then was the same as it is now.
“Boycott away,” he said. “This is America. You vote with your wallet. If you don’t want to buy it, don’t.”
The closer you get to Boston, of course, the easier it becomes to at least grasp the notion that Tsarnaev’s visage on the Rolling Stone cover (the same Facebook photo that ran, large and in full color, in the May 5 edition of the Sunday New York Times) somehow bestows unprecedented rock-star status on an alleged mass murderer.
(Unprecedented? See: Rolling Stone’s cover story “A Special Report: Charles Manson — The incredible story of the most dangerous man alive,” June 25, 1970.)
But to hear the quotes coming out of Boston on Thursday, it was hard to separate the righteous indignation from the post-traumatic denial.
“Why would we want to heroize this guy?” asked a visibly angry Boston Mayor Tom Menino. “He’s a terrorist. We don’t want him in our neighborhoods. We don’t want him on magazines. We don’t want him anywhere.”
Except he is here. And so, we have to believe, might be others just like him.
“This isn’t the former Soviet Union, where we go back and take people out of photos,” Bowe said. “This kid lived in Cambridge. He did a heinous thing. What are we going to do going forward? Put our heads in the sand? Or try and understand so we can better protect our kids?”
Put more simply, that cute-as-a-button kid “on the cover of the Rollin’ Stone” in no way resembles a terrorist who, one sunny day in April, blew up a crowd of innocent people.
Which, if you’re lucky enough to find a copy, is the story’s point.
Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: