Rolling Stone magazine is being bombarded by criticism for its cover treatment and photograph of Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. The article, by contributing editor Janet Reitman, is called “The Bomber: How a popular, promising student was failed by his family, fell into radical Islam and became a monster.” The feature includes interviews with childhood and college friends, teachers, neighbors and police officers. Readers, especially from Boston, bashed the magazine on its Facebook page, claiming that the cover page is turning a terrorist into a “rock star.”
CVS pharmacy, Walgreens and Massachusetts-based Tedeschi convenience stores all said that they are refusing to sell copies of the magazine. Tedeschi Food Shops wrote on its Facebook page that “it cannot support actions that serve to glorify the evil actions of anyone. Music and terrorism don’t mix.” The Woonsocket, R.I-based chain CVS wrote on its Facebook page: “As a company with deep roots in New England and a strong presence in Boston, we believe this is the right decision out of respect for the victims of the attack and their loved ones.”
Some of the reader comments on Rolling Stone Facebook page wrote:
“Jeff Bauman, who lost both legs, should be on the cover.”
“The best example of why Facebook needs a dislike button.”
“I am so disappointed with Rolling Stone magazine. I have enjoyed your magazine until now. I will no longer buy/read the mag. You have just made him a ‘rock star.’ How could you?”
Reading these comments and seeing the glamorized portrait of this murderer reminded me of a conversation I had at a dinner party in New York years ago. We were visiting from Israel during the height of the intifada, and it seemed like every week there was another terrorist attack. We couldn’t go into a restaurant or board a bus without glancing around in fear, and we had been a few blocks away when the Sbarro pizza shop was bombed. Still in New York, I could hear the echo of that horrific explosion and the sirens that seemed to never end afterwards.
One of the people seated at our table began talking about Israel and asked me whether I thought that the terrorists should be pitied because of their impoverished circumstances. I almost choked on my food. How could he? Does poverty excuse murder? Does being taught evil excuse a person from making up his own mind to actualize that evil?
I didn’t say any of that. Instead I stared at him for a moment before asking, “If one of your children had been killed in a terrorist attack, would you ask that kind of question? If you had lost an arm or a leg yourself, would you ask this question?’
“Yes, I believe I would,” he replied.
I didn’t answer him, and I didn’t believe him. Not for a moment. And I don’t believe that the editor of Rolling Stone would publish such an article if she had lost her legs in a bombing. Or her child. Or her arms. Or felt anything close to the pain that the victims of the Boston marathon bombing are still grappling with.
This past Tisha B’Av Rabbi Wallerstein read out loud a list of suffering in our generation: the infertile, the impoverished, the lonely people who can’t find spouses, the drug addicts, people suffering from cancer, from eating disorders, from marriage problems… The list was long, and at the end of it he paused and said that some of the people listening are not afflicted with anything on that list. And perhaps, there are some of us who have happy marriages and beautiful children and secure finances and health. And perhaps we hear the above list and think, That’s sad, but what does it have to do with me? My life is fine so who cares? We don’t say it, but perhaps we sometimes think it.
This lack of empathy is the antithesis of Judaism. If we can’t feel another’s pain, then God can’t feel our pain. If we can’t put ourselves in someone else’s place, then we don’t have a real sense of a spiritual self. There is no such thing as “mind your own business” in Torah.
A young man once came to the Chafetz Chaim and begged him for a blessing to cure a terminal illness. The Chafetz Chaim gave him a blessing and soon afterwards, this young man was cured. Years later, a relative of the man was struck with the same disease, so the man returned to the Chafetz Chaim and asked for a blessing to cure his relative. The response of the Chafetz Chaim is chilling:
“Years ago, I gave you a blessing that you should be cured, but it wasn’t just the blessing that cured you. I fasted 30 days so that you should recover. And I’m sorry, but now I am too old to fast that way again.” For 30 days the Chafetz Chaim fasted for someone he didn’t even know. That is how deeply he felt the pain of another.
But we are so far from feeling one another’s pain. Where is our sense of human decency and compassion? How can we glorify a murderer on the same cover as a rock star? The pain of the victims of the Boston marathon bombing is still so raw. Many of them are learning how to live without limbs. Without children. Without bitterness. And here is a photograph screaming in their faces: “It didn’t happen to me. It’s very sad. But I don’t care. I’m more interested in sensationalizing this kid and showing everyone how ‘normal’ and victimized he was.”
This is not who we are. This is not who anyone should be, including the editors of Rolling Stone. Even if it makes a good story. It is a tragic failure to feel another person’s pain.
Let us know what you think of the Rolling Stone cover in the comment section below.