It would be beyond unreasonable to expect everyone in the country to be regularly familiar with the articles in Rolling Stone. On the other hand, pretty much everyone has heard of Rolling Stone, which is where the problem lay, in this gap between the popular image of the magazine and the reality of its reporting.
If indeed we were just a celebrity/gossip mag that covered nothing but rock stars and pop-culture icons, and we decided to boost sales and dabble in hard news by way of putting a Jim Morrison-esque depiction of a mass murderer on our cover, that really would suck and we would deserve all of this criticism.
But Rolling Stone has actually been in the hard news/investigative reporting business since its inception, from Hunter S. Thompson to Carl Bernstein to Bill Greider back in the day to Tim Dickinson, Michael Hastings, Mark Boal, Janet Reitman and myself in recent years.
One could even go so far as to say that in recent years, when investigative journalism has been so dramatically de-emphasized at the major newspapers and at the big television news networks, Rolling Stone’s role as a source of hard-news reporting has been magnified. In other words, we’re more than ever a hard news outlet in a business where long-form reporting is becoming more scarce.
By depicting a terrorist as sweet and handsome rather than ugly and terrifying, Rolling Stone has subverted our expectations and hinted at a larger truth. The cover presents a stark contrast with our usual image of terrorists. It asks, “What did we expect to see in Tsarnaev? What did we hope to see?” The answer, most likely, is a monster, a brutish dolt with outward manifestations of evil. What we get instead, however, is the most alarming sight of all: a boy who looks like someone we might know.
We may want the media to reconfirm for us that psychopaths are crazed, nutty, creepy recluses whom we can easily identify and thus avoid. But, as this cover reminds us, that simply isn’t the case. Some psychopaths point guns at cameras; others snap selfies in T-shirts. As Tsarnaev’s many friends could attest, we aren’t as good as we’d like to believe at spotting the evil beneath the surface.
Measured in lives lost, during an interval that includes the biggest terrorist attack in American history, guns posed a threat to American lives that was more than 100 times greater than the threat of terrorism. Over the same interval, drunk driving threatened our safety 50 times more than terrorism.
The U.S. should certainly try to prevent terrorist attacks, and there is a lot that government can and has done since 9/11 to improve security in ways that are totally unobjectionable. But it is not rational to give up massive amounts of privacy and liberty to stay marginally safer from a threat that, however scary, endangers the average American far less than his or her daily commute.
"We are at war" seems to be an excuse these days for nearly any instance of government misbehavior or illegality. It is generally acknowledged and accepted that during wartime, acts that would be unthinkable during a time of peace are easily excused. It is horrifying to reflect upon the bombing of Dresden, which claimed more than 20,000 lives, or the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which wiped over 150,000 souls off the face of the earth. In retrospect, we might question the wisdom of these attacks (Dwight Eisenhower, for instance, maintained that dropping the bomb on Japan “was completely unnecessary”), but most Americans generally believe these events, however horrifying the cost might have been, were essential to protect and restore democracy. The same holds true for the war on terror, in which a wide variety of government abuses are frequently justified with the old edict that “we are at war.” Perhaps the best way to combat this line of thinking is to declare, officially and unequivocally, that the war on terror is over. If the idea of ending the war on terror is advanced throughout the halls of Congress and the public at large, many of the issues we contend with today, such as the closure of Guantanamo Bay, the legal and moral complications of drone strikes, and the normalization of sweeping executive power, could lose popular support.
Although I almost entirely disagreed with this Atlantic piece on what drone policy dissenters supposedly “get wrong,” there was one salient point made:
As someone who has spent over two years in combat, I suggest that the main point of moral judgment comes before one asks which means are legitimate when attacking an enemy. The main turning point concerns the question of whether we should fight at all. This is the crucial decision, because once we engage in armed conflict, we must assume that there are going to be many casualties on all sides. When we deliberate whether or not to fight, we should assume that once we step on this escalator, it will carry us to places we would rather not go.
It is often said by advocates of the war on terror that the struggle to eliminate terrorism is a unique war without borders or, oftentimes, clearly identifiable enemies. But labeling the fight against Islamic terrorism a “war” is merely a rhetorical justification for the seemingly unrestricted powers claimed by the Bush and Obama administrations to, among other things, assassinate suspects without judicial oversight or even public disclosure of the suspect’s alleged crimes, imprison innocent people in torturous facilities indefinitely, and refuse to investigate high-ranking officials who literally adopted and implemented enemy torture tactics. Lawlessness now pervades much of our government and many citizens accept this as a necessary extreme to ward off terrorist attacks, which are about as likely to claim the life of a U.S. citizen as a bolt of lightening.
We’ve overreacted to the threat of Islamic terrorism to such an extreme and alarming degree that many of us now strain to remember the years in which one did not face the real possibility of being groped by security agents at airports or corresponding with friends without the knowledge that the conversations, like billions of others annually stored in government databases, might be monitored. And what of the terrified Muslim communities infiltrated by government spies? Or the innocent Muslim Americans subjected to physical and verbal abuse by any hotheaded fool who happens to pass them on the street? Or the Congressional hearings that regard nearly all Muslims as potential enemies? In our self-absorbed, self-righteous anger, we often forget that the primary victims of Islamic terrorist attacks are innocent Muslims. We’ve learned, as Robert F. Kennedy once said, “to hate and fear” Muslim Americans, often regarding them “not as fellow citizens but as enemies, to be met not with cooperation but with conquest.” It is not difficult to see that by degrading Muslims around the world, we have also degraded ourselves and our nation.
The sooner we roll back this war, the sooner we can restore our nation to normal, and the sooner we can go on living our lives without allowing a pack of murderers to forever disrupt them. In attempting to defend our “values” and our “way of life” from terrorism, we have too often destroyed those things ourselves.
To the problem of violence, there ought to be a path between callous indifference and total social warfare. And that’s why the miserable and absolute failure of gun control legislation in the Senate—just two days after the Boston bombing and on the same day of the West explosion—was especially galling. Like acts of terrorism, the murderous rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School precipitated a national crisis. In the wake of that tragedy, our collective grief took a particular shape, the shape of democracy. The deaths of those school children were linked to the fate of more than 30,000 victims of gun violence each year, and the impulse to act was channeled through our democratic system, where an overwhelming majority of Americans and a majority of the US Senate expressed support for new gun laws, which were nonetheless defeated.
Last night, a Fox news anchor cited a poll that claimed that just 4 percent of Americans think gun control is the “the most important problem facing the country today.” Implicit in his commentary is the idea that because gun violence isn’t seen as the singularly most urgent issue, it isn’t an issue at all, that like workplace fatalities are to a modern economy, so gun violence is to the Second Amendment—just a cost we should get used to.
So America, here’s your scorecard for the week of April 15, 2013: callous indifference: 2, total warfare: 1.
This piece is brilliant. Please read in full at the link above.
In cases where the religious affiliation of terrorism casualties could be determined, Muslims suffered between 82 and 97 percent of terrorism-related fatalities over the past five years.
Of the 13,288 people killed by terrorist attacks last year, seventeen were private U.S. citizens, or .001 percent.
Drones hover twenty-four hours a day over communities in northwest Pakistan, striking homes, vehicles, and public spaces without warning. Their presence terrorizes men, women, and children, giving rise to anxiety and psychological trauma among civilian communities.
The U.S. practice of striking one area multiple times, and evidence that it has killed rescuers, makes both community members and humanitarian workers afraid or unwilling to assist injured victims. Some community members shy away from gathering in groups, including important tribal dispute-resolution bodies, out of fear that they may attract the attention of drone operators.