Rolling Stone has taken considerable flak for its decision to put Dzhokhar Tsarnaev—the younger, still-alive brother accused of being one of the Boston Marathon bombers—on the cover of this week's issue. That flak has led some major magazine sellers, including CVS and Wallgreens, to refuse to put the issue on newsstands.
But the brouhaha over the cover photo ignores the main reason Rolling Stone used that selfie in the first place; the piece is excellent. Seriously, read it. The author, Janet Reitman, wrote a fantastic, well-researched and thorough report on the evolution of "Jahar," or as his friends called him, "Jizz," from a National Honor Society student to an accused terrorist. The normality of Jahar has been told before, but Reitman takes the story to a new level, using as sources his personal friend group, family associates, neighbors, his wrestling coach, and even hospital nurses, Reitman (who has experience writing about troubled bros) delves into Jahar's pre-radical, high school years, when he was "one of the realest dudes," "superchill," "gorgeous," and "smooth as fuck." Yeah, the story behind that dramatic cover is well worth your time.
Reitman is no slouch, having previously spent five full years researching for her book Inside Scientology. Her journalistic style eschews the sensationalism for the raw details; the Los Angeles Times called her book "compelling, well-researched," echoing similar sentiments from elsewhere. Criticize the decision to put the bomber in a hero-like pose on Rolling Stone's cover, if you like, but recognize that there is a compelling story within those pages.
In particular, the article details the earlier, more peaceful days before his turn to radical Islam, and comes to a major conclusion: Jahar Tsarnaev was a total bro. "He was just superchill," one friend told Reitman. "He was one of the realest dudes I've ever met in my life," another said. When his buddies got drunk and needed a ride home, he was the first person they called. "He'd just go, 'I got you, dog' – even if you called him totally wasted at, like, two or three in the morning."
Between his booming laugh and his long, disheveled hair, he was "smooth as fuck" with girls. And Reitman describes him as a "dedicated pot smoker;" in college he kept a big Tupperware of weed in his fridge and dealt to wealthy friends to help pay off his schooling. Even when he was miserable at college, Jahar still managed to maintain his bro status. "He used to always call and say it's mad wack and the people were corny," a friend said.
Much of this has been reported before elsewhere, in the direct of the wake bombing. But this is a more meditative take on the youthful indiscretions that suddenly veered into a more troubling direction. The 12-page profile is worth purchase (it's only $5) in hard copy, specifically for the many photos of Jahar's regular life, which the online profile does not contain. In one picture from just last year, Jahar sits in a lawn chair outside in a circle with nine friends, wearing a gray "Cambridge" pinnie and fussing with a white poodle.
It's such a startling image—even more than the cover photo—for putting into photo form what Reitman's piece succeeds in doing. That is, showing and explaining how a normal kid named Jahar turned into the Boston Bomber.
Jahar was a good student, friend, and teammate as well. He was captain of the wrestling team. He received a scholarship to University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. He was one of "the good kids," a Cambridge parent told Reitman. "My mom would always say, 'Why can't you talk to me the way Dzhokhar talks to his mother?'" a Chechen friend said. Importantly, the profile helps to explain the oddly large #FreeJahar movement fighting for his innocence.
The turning point for Jahar, Reitman insinuates, was a crumbling family structure and an older brother, Tamerlan, and mother, Zubeidat, who became devout, conspiracy-theorist Muslims.(Among Reitman's many fantastic details, Tamerlan "spent long hours" reading Alex Jones' InfoWars.) His parents divorced and then moved back to the Caucasus. Tamerlan moved away from his boxing career and became "controlling" and "manipulative." And there was Jahar, the "golden child," who was caught between two worlds, eventually siding with the radical, murderous one.
Though it seems as if Jahar had found a mission, his embrace of Islam also may have been driven by something more basic: a need to belong. "Look, he was totally abandoned," says Payack, who believes that the divorce of his parents and their subsequent move back to Russia was pivotal, as was the loss of the safety net he had at Rindge.
In addition to talking to a wide array of his personal friend network, Reitman meticulously goes through seemingly all of Jahar's 1,088 tweets from his Twitter account. That's one of the many signs that she has done her duty as a reporter. So while you may not love the cover, do read what's inside.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.