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Editorial: Rolling Stone cover forces us to confront origins of Boston bombing

An early copy of Rolling Stone magazine's August

An early copy of Rolling Stone magazine's August 2013 issue is read at an office in Los Angeles. (July 17, 2013) Credit: Getty Images

Rolling Stone sparked a firestorm of criticism with its August cover, featuring a portrait of Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Tousled hair falls over the 19-year-old's forehead, not unlike handsome rock stars such as Jim Morrison who have long graced the magazine's cover.

Critics, including Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, contend that the photo glorifies the bomber. With iconic covers ranging from music stars to Hollywood sex symbols, Rolling Stone has defined "cool" for decades. And plastering "The Bomber's" face on a magazine not only lionizes a killer, they argue, but could inspire troubled individuals to follow his lead. Many retailers are refusing to sell the issue.

These reactions are understandable and the predictions possible in the wake of such a tragedy. In the end, however, intolerance of free expression and artistic license is a mistake.

Rolling Stone's cover is a direct challenge to its readers, to us all. The accompanying story elicits a painful self-examination by detailing -- as a subheadline promises -- "how a popular, promising student was failed by his family, fell into radical Islam and became a monster."

Tsarnaev was by all accounts an average teen: He got good grades, captained his high school wrestling team, smoked weed and flirted with girls. He also happened to be good looking.

The furor has arisen, in part, because this is not how a monster is expected to look. Instead, Rolling Stone shows readers a kid and asks them a question: How could someone so young and with so much promise do something so horrible? That's why the cover is powerful, because not long ago -- before he was radicalized, before the marathon and before the police chase -- Tsarnaev used to be one of us.