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The Iconography of Terror

Why empty streets are just as scary as fallen bodies

Getty/Kayana Szymczak

First came the smoky streets, then the deserted ones. So much about the past few days has felt like a particularly twisted action movie—fire, explosions, injured and discombobulated people running helter-skelter—but certain images coming from Boston and its suburbs in the past 24 hours have seemed more like stills from a post-apocalyptic film than anything else—the kind where emptiness is eerie, and anything but peaceful.

Even more than the images of SWAT teams rolling through semi-suburban neighborhoods, police robots crawling the streets, men in bullet-proof vests pointing guns though white picket fences, and the Helicopter hovering like an insect against a steely sky (if it has become cliché to talk about the bright blueness of the sky on September 11, I foresee a grayer trope playing out in the narrative of today’s events), it is the images of a deserted Kenmore Square and the empty crosswalk in front of South Station that impress the utter strangeness of today’s events. It’s trite to say that a certain city won’t stand for this or that (“Washington can’t handle weather!”)—but it must be accurate to say that Boston is not a city that shuts down quickly. When I attended college there, I regularly trudged my way to class through two feet of snow.

These images are striking not just because seeing any bustling space suddenly devoid of human form is a jarring experience but also because the iconography of terrorism tends, understandably, to turn to human figures: those horrific falling bodies plummeting from the twin towers; or, more recently, the man in the wheelchair, whose injured form became a visceral symbol last Monday of the senseless violence and suffering inflicted at the Boston marathon. Human-oriented images appeared today as well, of course: a barefoot man carrying his child across a lawn in Watertown, for instance. But, because of the lockdown imposed on Boston and surrounding towns, bystanders more often appeared behind half-shaded windows or peering from their apartment balconies.

But you can be terrorized within the walls of your home. The fact that most of the photojournalism from today circled around police force deployment and social media shots of the suspect rather than bodies on the streets does not mean that the strange scariness of today will be diminished. The body count, thankfully, will be relatively low (although, of course, a single body is too many), but the psychic effect will still be profound. For one thing, lockdown, as sensible as it surely was, contradicts the message of resistance and resilience that is almost immediately broadcast following any act of terrorism, as if recognizing fear is akin to letting the terrorists win. At the start of the week we were told to keep on training, keep on running, but by the end, no one was allowed on the streets.