Representing Evil

On the portrayal of (alleged) criminals and the American psyche.

Richard Baker

The controversial Rolling Stone cover. (Sean McCabe / Rolling Stone).

The prob­lem with the pic­ture of Boston bomb­ing sus­pect Dzhokhar Tsar­naev on the cov­er of Rolling Stone is sim­ply that it looks like Tsar­naev, a rea­son­ably hand­some young man who could be from any decent com­mu­ni­ty in the world. Amer­i­cans will not stand for truth in rep­re­sen­ta­tions of alleged criminals.

Apparently the one thing we cannot forgive in this country is the crime of resembling someone else.

Large­ly due to tele­vi­sion, movies, and pho­to selec­tion by the media, we can­not, as Jack Nichol­son said, han­dle the truth.” A bad guy must look like a bad guy. Some­one whom we believe has tak­en inno­cent lives must resem­ble some kind of ogre: rough com­plex­ion, crooked or miss­ing teeth, droopy eyes, scruffy hair and clothes. They’re not sup­posed to look like a clean-cut col­lege boy oper­at­ing killer drones. Pic­tures must always fit our per­cep­tion of the char­ac­ter, good or bad.

We can accept the fact that George W. Bush looks stu­pid and is stu­pid, or that Stephen Hawk­ing looks bril­liant and is bril­liant. We can accept that many polit­i­cal fig­ures look solip­sis­tic and untrust­wor­thy and are just that, while oth­ers appear to be hon­est and decent and are just that, but we can­not have the Green Riv­er Killer look like a reg­u­lar employ­ee at a truck fac­to­ry. We must find the worst pic­ture we can in order to show how evil he is, even if only one pic­ture out of a thou­sand can be found. A black man who kills his wife must be made even black­er on the cov­er of Time to con­form to our idea of evil.

We have dif­fi­cul­ty deal­ing with decent images of ter­ri­ble peo­ple. Our minds can­not over­come our eyes. When we mis­take a crim­i­nal for a decent-look­ing, aver­age cit­i­zen, we admit our weak­ness. We have been fooled; our pri­mal instinct to detect dan­ger fails to pro­tect us and we are angry.

When a decent pic­ture of John Dillinger appeared after his arrest, good look­ing and sophis­ti­cat­ed, we had to make him into a star for our own san­i­ty. Law­men posed with him arm-in-arm, all smil­ing, all con­tent. Not so with Al Capone: a squat, ugly man with a scarred face and fat lips ooz­ing tobac­co juice. He fooled no one.

The press picks pic­tures to fit the crime. Has any­one ever seen a respectable pic­ture of Char­lie Man­son? Cer­tain­ly some must exist: pub­lic­i­ty pic­tures from his days as a singer-song­writer, or per­haps shots of him as a young man.

The media often uses book­ing pho­tos to depict crim­i­nals. Dur­ing the time of their book­ing, a per­son is gen­er­al­ly con­fused. They may have been has­sled and are like­ly afraid. If a poor pic­ture can­not be found, no pic­ture is shown. Reporters hunt for per­son­al accounts from peo­ple who knew the sus­pect. He was always such a nice guy.” He was qui­et and nev­er both­ered any­one.” We can dis­count a per­son­al account but not an image.

Anoth­er prob­lem was that Rolling Stone print­ed the pic­ture. Had almost any oth­er pub­li­ca­tion print­ed it, it might have passed with­out con­tro­ver­sy. Rolling Stone is a mag­a­zine osten­si­bly devot­ed to music and rock stars. A good-look­ing per­son­’s pho­to on the cov­er might con­fer instant star­dom on them. The response would be dif­fer­ent if the pic­ture had been print­ed on the cov­er of a news mag­a­zine. The writer and edi­tor would have used it to pro­voke the same response in the read­er that per­son­al accounts do: How could a clean-cut, nice-look­ing man be so demonic?”

A pic­ture of a per­son is just a pic­ture of a per­son. It car­ries no mean­ing except that which we put into it. The only thing Rolling Stone could have done wrong would have been to print a pic­ture of some­one else and say it was Tsar­naev. Peo­ple claim he looks too much like Jim Mor­ri­son. Appar­ent­ly the one thing we can­not for­give in this coun­try is the crime of resem­bling some­one else. View­ers have for­got­ten that Mor­ri­son was unbal­anced and a dope addict — traits some­how accept­able in artists” but not a per­son on the streets. Peo­ple do not always look as they seem or seem as they actu­al­ly look. Ask any priest.

Richard Bak­er is the author of the nov­els First a Torch, about the siege of Dien Bien Phu, and Incom­ing, about sol­dier suicide.
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