April 22, 2013 3:53 PM EDT

On Thursday, April 18, the special agent in charge of the Boston Division of the FBI appeared on television to release high-definition cell-phone images captured by bystanders and examined by agents trained to read facial expressions, and closed circuit surveillance video footage showing two young men carrying backpacks believed to be the prime suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings on Monday, April 15, that killed three people and injured more than 170 others. The men were identified only as “Suspect 1,” wearing a black hat, and “Suspect 2,” wearing a white hat. They appeared “to be walking together through the marathon crowd on Boylston Street in the direction of the finish line.” Special agent Richard DesLauriers displayed the images on pasteboard posters as if at a trade fair or as part of a high school science project, but they were also released on the FBI website, “posted for the public and media to use, review, and publicize.”

Actress Julia Roberts called the sudden death of her half-sister Nancy Motes “heartbreak” in a new interview with WSJ Magazine. The 46-year-old star opened up to the magazine just 20 days after Motes was found dead of an apparent drug overdose in February, though the interview was published on Monday. “There aren’t words to explain what any of us have been through in these last 20 days,” Roberts told WSJ. “It’s hour by hour some days, but you just keep looking ahead.” Motes, who worked as a production assistant, was found dead in her Los Angeles home on Feb. 9. Reports swirled that the 37-year-old had left a suicide note detailing her strained relationship with the Academy Award winning actress and her family in the days following her death. Roberts, however, remained silent on the death and her relationship. In the interview with WSJ, conducted in early March, Roberts did not touch on the rumors. “You don’t want anything bad to happen to anyone, but there are so many tragic, painful, inexplicable things in the world,” Roberts said. “But [as with] any situation of challenge and despair we must find a way, as a family.” Roberts told the magazine she had been practicing meditation and chanting in order to stay calm, a practice she passed along to her children. "We share and just say, 'This is a way I comfort myself,'" Roberts said. The full interview, available here, was conducted to promote an upcoming HBO film “The Normal Heart,” which stars Roberts.
FBI via Getty Images

“For more than 100 years,” said special agent DesLauriers, “the FBI has relied on the public to be its eyes and ears. With the media’s help, in an instant, these images will be delivered directly into the hands of millions around the world. We know the public will play a critical role in identifying and locating them.” As soon as the images appeared online, the site was inundated with tips and inquiries. The size of the net cast in the search for the as-yet-unnamed suspects had instantly increased by a factor of millions.

At the same time, the FBI agent tried to control the multiplier: “For clarity, these images should be the only ones—the only ones—that the public should view to assist us. Other photos should not be deemed credible and unnecessarily divert the public’s attention in the wrong direction and create undue work for vital law enforcement resources.”

The overall coverage rate of images has increased considerably since 9/11. The volume of data files, of unstructured digital imagery from mobile devices and ubiquitous surveillance cameras, for any given event, is staggering. From the moment of the blasts in Boston, and before, the number of still and moving images recorded provided nearly complete coverage. At this point, analysis technology is struggling to keep up with collection technology. The often-repeated claim by law enforcement officials that “there’s no such thing as too much evidence” is being sorely tested.

Massachusetts State Police via Getty Images

FBI officials would later say that the decision to release the images of the suspects was made at the highest levels, including Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and Director of the FBI Robert S. Mueller III, because the search for the killers had stalled. The release of the images set off a series of events that transpired over the next 26 hours, leaving one police officer and one of the suspects dead, several other officers gravely wounded, and one of the nation’s major cities locked down.

It appears that crowd-sourcing did not lead directly to the apprehension of the suspects, but the barrage of images may have flushed them out into the open.

Terror, like its father, war, is all about destroying bodies. If bodies are not distressed, maimed, and killed, it’s not doing its job. The Brothers Tsarnaev did most of their infernal work all at once, with two timed explosions of low-tech shrapnel-packed IEDs spraying mayhem into a crowd of onlookers. Whereas the 9/11 terrorists hit high and rained down destruction, the Boston bombers hit low and spread out, crippling victims from the waist down, an especially horrific assault tactic in the context of a running event.

Afterward, the images of Boston under siege showed most Americans, for the first time, the face of the new post-9/11 Homeland Security state, with military-level armaments and armored vehicles, surveillance helicopters equipped with thermal imaging technology to detect human bodies under cover, and overwhelming firepower. Shock and Awe had come home to our own backyards, mobilized in the end to track down one 19-year old college student. This was a different kind of multiplier effect: an attempt was made to clear the streets of the city, to get everyone to “shelter in place” and become spectators alone in front of their screens.

Most Americans know nothing about the Central African Republic. They guess that it must be in the middle of Africa, but that’s about it. When told where it is and the societal chaos and slaughter in CAR, they always ask why it’s not more in the news. Although I’ve traveled to much of the world including Africa, I had never been there until this month. The U.S. State Department invited a trio of American religious leaders to travel to the capital city of Bangui to see for ourselves and to talk peace. The three included Roman Catholic Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Muslim Imam Mohamed Magid (President of the Islamic Society of North America) and me. Why us? According to TIME Magazine, the religious composition of CAR is 52 percent evangelicals, 29 percent Catholics and 15 percent Muslims. We met with our counterparts in CAR, Catherine Samba-Panza (the transitional president of CAR), members of her administration, and representatives of the conflicting military groups. Our meetings were at a closed mosque, the Cathedral, the president’s residence and the home of the U.S. ambassador (although there is no current ambassador since our embassy has been suspended). It’s not easy to explain what’s been happening. And, not everyone agrees to any explanation. The best chronology begins with a corrupt and failed central government that has been accused of injustice and incompetence. A rebel group called Seleka swept across the country with brutality and established a new government with a new president. The new president didn’t last long. An anti-balaka militia organized for protection and retaliation against the Seleka and have been accused of further brutality. A transitional government has been established, but it is poor, weak and often overwhelmed. We heard stories that break your heart. Thousands killed, often with machetes. Widespread rape. Destruction of homes, shops and villages. There were 36 mosques in Bangui; now there are seven. One man told us that 13 of his brothers were burned to death the same day. Another told about a hand grenade thrown into a group of people while they prayed. The National Highway was closed by all the unrest, so trucks and supplies can’t access the country. Villagers have fled into the bush out of fear; their villages are empty, and no crops are being planted. One million people have fled the country or are internally displaced. There is a refugee camp at the little airport that swelled to 100,000. Seeds for planting are not available; some will be imported from Cameroon, but they are also in short supply and giving priority to their own farmers saying that any surplus will be sold to CAR. There is threat of wide-scale famine. Before all this CAR was one of the poorest nations in the world with people living on less that $2 per day. Current shortages are inflating food prices. In Bangui, the capital of CAR, chickens are selling for $12 each. (To make a comparison: If you earn $50,000 a year in the United States, it would cost you over $800 to buy one chicken for your family.) We were in Africa on the 20th anniversary of the beginning of the genocide in Rwanda. There were repeated testimonies of foreign nations apologizing for not going to Rwanda and stopping the horrors before they turned into genocide. We need to take our own apologies and advice to do more in the Central African Republic. Some say that this is a religious battle between Christians and Muslims. It is a common assertion in our western press. I can see why they say this, since there are similar lines politically, demographically and religiously. However, the leaders we talked to in CAR insist this is not a religious war. To the contrary, the religious leaders are the loudest most courageous voices against the violence and the strongest promoters of peace. The word needs to get out. The whole world knows about the missing Malaysian airplane with 239 passengers and crew. Forty four million dollars have already been spent on the search. But, there are thousands missing in CAR, and it barely makes the news. International troops under United Nations leadership need to establish order and rebuild infrastructure. And relief and development assistance should be immediately deployed. As we sat in the ambassador’s residence, one of the militia representatives said that the people of CAR have not made God the priority. He said that most important in the Central African Republic is for the people of the nation to turn their hearts and actions to God. His prayer was that human tragedy would turn into spiritual renewal. Leith Anderson is the president of the National Association of Evangelicals
Samantha England—Reuters

After the older brother was killed in a ferocious firefight, and law enforcement was closing in on the younger brother, someone made a grisly autopsy image of the slain terrorist, naked, battered, and bloody, and emailed it around to first responders, to act as confirmation. Then it went viral on the Net and had a different effect, as vengeance pornography, unleashing a torrent of sneers and slurs in an orgy of virtual vigilantism.

The larger autopsy has only begun, of course, and the questions are many. Some of the most pressing are about how images are operating now, in a changed environment, and how the new faces of terrorism are mirroring or tracking the features of our relation to images—shifting from the organized and coherent structures of institutional bodies to atomized, alienated individuals acting alone.


David Levi Strauss is the author of From Head to Hand: Art and the Manual (Oxford University Press, 2010), Between the Eyes: Essays on Photography and Politics, with an introduction by John Berger (Aperture 2003), Between Dog & Wolf: Essays on Art and Politics (Autonomedia 1999), and the forthcoming Words Not Spent Today Buy Smaller Images Tomorrow. He is Chair of the MFA program in Art Criticism & Writing at the School of Visual Arts in New York.

Strauss previously wrote for LightBox on The Art of the Altered Image, James Nachtwey’s unpublished 9/11 photographs and an analysis of top-level decisions to withhold sensitive imagery.


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