FYI: Terrorists Can Be Hot and Black Men Can Be Innocent

This week, Rolling Stone made everyone very mad by putting a picture of suspected Boston Marathon bomber Dzokhar Tsarnaev on the cover of the magazine. Rolling Stone was accused of "glamorizing" terror by using a photo of Tsarnaev that made him look like a "rock star." Boston Mayor Tom Menino said the cover "rewards a terrorist with celebrity treatment." The controversy has led CVS and other stores in the New England area to refuse to sell the issue.

Why are we so upset about this Rolling Stone cover? Inside the magazine is an extensively reported story by Janet Reitman, who investigated Tsarnaev for two months in the hopes of understanding what turns a normal kid into a "radical." It’s a story about Tsarnaev, not the first responders or the victims (maybe it should have been, I don’t know). It makes sense that the cover would reflect the subject matter of the piece. When I look at the image Rolling Stone picked, I don't see glamor or celebrity. I see Tsarnaev, in his Caucasianness, looking completely…normal. There he is, wearing some cheesy Armani Exchange t-shirt and looking so goddamn normal. Boring, even.

Perhaps the anger surrounding this cover is because we’ve come to rely on the popular narrative of all criminals = bad guys. This image of Tsarnaev doesn’t comport with our vision of "badness." It's scary to think that a young man accused of monstrous things might actually be a real, fully-formed human being who is not a comically evil cartoon villain. Why doesn't he look like he just left a Legion of Doom meeting?! A friend of one of the bombing victims took Rolling Stone to task for using a "sympathetic" photo of Tsarnaev. Others have called the picture "dreamy," "flattering," and "brilliant." Tsarnaev doesn’t look like a terrorist. He looks like a young, dumb, Boston douche at a club. He does not look like a threat.

But maybe it's time to re-examine what we think a threat "looks like." In the wake of the George Zimmerman verdict, where we've argued extensively over what sort of clothing and behavior constitutes a threat that justifies deadly self-defense, confronting our notions of fear and danger are more important than ever.

Take, for example, Richard Cohen's horrendous op-ed in the Washington Post about Trayvon Martin and racial profiling. It was a breathtaking ode to Cohen’s white privilege and racism:

"Where is the politician who will own up to the painful complexity of the problem and acknowledge the widespread fear of crime committed by young black males? This does not mean that raw racism has disappeared, and some judgments are not the product of invidious stereotyping. It does mean, though, that the public knows young black males commit a disproportionate amount of crime."

Dick Cohen, ladies and gentlemen. He isn’t even completely correct about the "disproportionate amount of crime" that black males supposedly commit, but that doesn't stop him from arguing that racial profiling is the key to successful policing:

"If I were a young black male and were stopped just on account of my appearance, I would feel violated. If the police are abusing their authority and using race as the only reason, that has got to stop. But if they ignore race, then they are fools and ought to go into another line of work."

Great news, Dick. You’re not young. And you’re not black. The fact that we’re even focusing on this with respect to Trayvon Martin is a travesty. How much time did Zimmerman’s defense team spend digging into Trayvon's background? Trying to find something that made him seem more threatening? Something that could justify Zimmerman’s deadly force? All of a sudden the focus was off Zimmerman and the fact he killed a child and on to Trayvon. Trayvon used marijuana. Trayvon called Zimmerman a "cracker." Well, gee, maybe Zimmerman was scared. Maybe his fear did make sense.

No. Zimmerman's behavior that night was almost certainly the by-product of the racial profiling Richard Cohen holds so dear. When you rely on criminal statistics to inform your interactions with black people—innocent people minding their own business—shit goes wrong. Trayvon Martin is dead because Zimmerman found him guilty of being a "fucking punk" and an "asshole." Why did Zimmerman follow Trayvon that night? Because "they"—fucking punks? Assholes? Black people?—"always get away," Zimmerman told the 911 operator.

For someone as dumb as Richard Cohen or as awful as George Zimmerman, I can understand how comforting it must be to think you can stay safe by judging people based on an easily determinable characteristic. But it doesn’t work like that. Look at that image of Dzokhar Tsarnaev again. His whiteness precludes him from Cohen's (and Zimmerman’s) racial profiling scheme. No one reported him or his brother, Tamerlan, as being suspicious, even though both brothers wore hoodies the day of the marathon. After the bombs went off, the Tsarnaev brothers took their whiteness and ran away. The police didn't notice, because they were too busy investigating a Saudi Arabian man—a man who had absolutely nothing to do with the attacks. That's where racial profiling got us in Boston.

Our understanding of "threats" and "danger" are so wrapped up in unfair racial stereotypes that we perceive innocent people as guilty and guilty people as innocent. Racial profiling didn’t keep Trayvon Martin safe. It didn’t keep the bombing victims safe. Using race as a justification for fear only leads to more violence, more death, and more heartache.

Meagan Hatcher-Mays is a recent graduate of Washington University Law School. She does a significant amount of yelling on Twitter.