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July 21st, 2013
07:29 PM ET

Painter of terror suspects discusses Rolling Stone cover

This week Rolling Stone magazine published an issue with suspected Boston Bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the cover. There was an immediate backlash with the editors of the magazine accused of glamorizing a terrorist.

The criticism reminded us of the response to our March 2012 interview with Daisy Rockwell, a writer and artist who paints portraits of terror suspects in innocent poses.

OutFront reached out to Rockwell for her take on the Rolling Stone controversy.

OutFront: What do you think of the Tsarnaev cover?

Daisy Rockwell: At first when I heard about this controversy I thought it was some kind of joke. Mass killers of all stripes appear on magazine covers all the time. Similarly, Rolling Stone has long engaged in political reporting as well as entertainment reporting. The 'selfie' of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev that they've used is available all over the internet and has even appeared in the New York Times. Rolling Stone has done nothing to the photograph, so one is forced to ask how exactly is the magazine glamorizing terrorism?

OutFront: So where do you think the controversy is coming from?

Rockwell: I think the answer is pretty simple. A few obvious factoids about Tsarnaev: he's white, he's handsome, he doesn't have a long scraggly beard. He looks 'dreamy' in that photo because he's a good-looking guy. Therefore we can only deduce that it is being deemed offensive to the victims of the bombing to show him as he is, a handsome white boy, rather than running a classic racist caricature of him with a hooked nose and an ugly scowl as others have done.

47962_cover_full_the_weekTo confront the public with the fact that a terrorist could be a nice-looking white boy is highly offensive. Terrorists are angry, foreign-looking men with brown skin and venom-filled Islamic motivations.

Home-grown mass-killers, the ones that pop up with frightening regularity in the US, in Aurora, Newtown, Columbine, and so on, are misguided boys next door who have played too many video games and maybe have mental health problems. Terrorism is something that comes from outside, and there's a stubborn refusal, an almost violent refusal, to acknowledge that someone like Dzhokhar Tsarnaev could be a similarly misguided malcontent youth. It's simply his rationale (and his method: pressure cooker bombs clearly are not as effective for mass-killings as Bushmasters) that differs from our regular American killers.

And then, of course, there's no need to glamorize Tsarnaev, who already has a fan base that tweets under the hashtag #freejahar, idolizes him and firmly believes him to be an innocent victim of a conspiracy. These fans have shown up for his hearings already and have been documented by Gawker.

OutFront: The criticism [of the Rolling Stone cover] reminded us of some of the comments we received about your paintings. How do you respond to that sort of criticism?

Rockwell: Ultimately such critiques ask that we not look at those we fear, that somehow this is giving them respect they don't deserve. My response is that if you don't look, you don't actually know what you're afraid of. Terrorism is by definition about spreading fear. When we say 'the terrorists have won' we mean that we can't live our lives without fear any longer. But if we don't examine what terrorism is, how we're defining it, who we've decided the bogeyman is, that's when fear is allowed to control our lives.

If we compare Dzhokhar Tsarnaev with James Holmes, and say the former is someone who is our enemy and whom we must fear at all times and the latter is a strange aberration, a crazy boy, an anomaly, we don't give ourselves a chance to examine the fact that the threat of violence comes much more from within our society than from without. I think the Rolling Stones cover is opening that question up, and that has made people very uncomfortable, because they don't want to crawl out from under their beds and confront their fears face to face.

Photos of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev released after Rolling Stone complaints

OutFront: In response to the Rolling Stone cover, a Massachusetts state police officer leaked photos of Tsarnaev from the night of his capture. What did you make of those images?

Rockwell: I was particularly amused by the release [of the photos]. The title of the article was "The Real Face of Terror." In other words, the images of Tsarnaev shown here are what a terrorist actually looks like, as opposed to the (real, not doctored) photo that appears on the cover of Rolling Stone. What amused me by these was that he still looks like the same guy in these photos, just bloodied and beaten. Is it supposed to be more righteous to show a terrorist cornered and bleeding, the bead of a sniper on his temple? Is it offensive to show pictures of a terrorist when he's healthy and reasonably happy-looking? Does Sgt. Murphy, the photographer, not notice that Tsarnaev, as he pulls himself from the boat, looks every inch a martyr, albeit with much nicer abs than we usually see in medieval portraits of saints?

Follow Christopher Moloney on Twitter: @Moloknee

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