Roxane Gay, in a trenchant piece at Salon, breaks down the varying ways in which Trayvon Martin, a victim, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, an alleged terrorist, have been racially profiled by the media and Americans in general. She points out that the light reflects a kinder glow on Tsarnaev, who is white, than on Martin, who was black.
There is no way to truly know whom we need to protect ourselves from. Dangerous people rarely look the way we expect. We were reminded of this in early 2013 when we learned that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who looks like the “boy next door,” was identified as one of the two young men suspected in the terrorist bombings near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Three people were killed and nearly 300 others injured. This notoriety, I imagine, explains why Tsarnaev is featured on the cover of the August issue of Rolling Stone.
The magazine has been accused of exploiting tragedy, glorifying terrorism, and trying to make a martyr or a rock star out of Tsarnaev. But protests aside, the cover is provocative and pointed. It is a stark reminder that we can never truly know where danger lurks. It is also a reminder that we have certain cultural notions about who looks dangerous and who does not. These notions are reinforced, amply, by the article accompanying the cover, something few people seem to be talking about. The tone of Janet Reitman’s reportage and the ongoing conversation about Tsarnaev as a “normal American teenager,” are an interesting and troubling contrast to the way we talk about, say, Trayvon Martin, who was also a “normal American teenager” and not a criminal or terrorist. George Zimmerman killed Martin because Martin fit our cultural idea of what danger looks like. Zimmerman was acquitted for the very same reason.
Most striking in Reitman’s extensive and well-reported article is how the people who knew Tsarnaev are still willing to see the man behind the monster. Tsarnaev is described by those who knew him in near reverential terms as “sweet” and “superchill” and “smooth as f–k” and “a golden person, really just a genuine good guy.” While Tsarnaev’s community acknowledges the terrible things the young man has done, and mourn the tragedy of the bombings, they are unwilling to turn their backs on him.
Read Roxane Gay‘s entire piece at Salon.
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