Almost immediately, it became clear that the September 11th attackers undertook their plans with an eye toward commanding global attention. Their targets were obvious icons of U.S. cultural, political, and economic dominance, immediately legible as such. By contrast, recent targets of ISIS-inspired attacks – Christmas markets, night clubs or fireworks displays – do not have such clear significance. They could be anywhere, everywhere, as ISIS sees a world full of enemies.
If the attacks, as the conventional wisdom would have it, of September 11th looked like a disaster movie, what did the attack in Berlin on December 19 resemble?
The answer suggested by this photo is: nothing. With the exception of other, similar strikes by ISIS operatives and devotees, there is no obvious analog. Rather than gesturing to modes of violence (and hence, of retribution) made commonplace on screens, such attacks are profoundly self-referential. The only points of reference are those generated by ISIS itself, in the form of its other attacks. The resultant collapse of meaning is different from that precipitated by the attacks of September 11th, which targeted places with overdetermined meanings that had previously seemed unassailable. By contrast, in its orchestration of scenes like the one captured above, ISIS declares its intention to establish a different sense-making system patterned almost exclusively in accordance with its own logic. For those of us who experience events like this primarily as mediated phenomena, this singular quality compounds their indecipherability.
Even the larger story of September 11th followed a cinematic arc. Because it was coordinated by an identifiable and elusive villain, the aftermath of the attack unfolded as a protracted manhunt that ended decisively (if invisibly). Documents like The 9/11 Report and movies like Zero Dark Thirty, among now-countless others, further assimilated the attacks into familiar narrative progressions. (I talk more about this kind of emplotting in my book.) Attacks like the one in Berlin, however, resist such organization; they are launched with little or no warning by largely unknown actors with ill-defined motives and murky or purely virtual connections to the networks that they purport to represent.
Beyond their recognizable similarity to big-budget action movies, spectacular acts of violence also beget images that echo, in their scale and intensity, the affective magnitude of the event, while providing clear cognitive and emotional cues on how to interpret it. Photos like this one, however, provide little guidance on either front. Because the photo was shot after the removal of the truck, the damage appears as the consequence of an unseen force. Excepting the Christmas trees (one toppled, the other partly obscured by debris), the snowflake decal on the blue building, and the high-visibility clothing worn by the authorities, the image offers almost no details on which to gain any interpretive purchase. It suggests nothing about how to feel other than disoriented.
Consequently, images like this are multiply unsettling. Of course, they document the insinuation of militarized violence into everyday spaces. But they also suggest the possibility of a violence that exceeds our capacity to visualize it: not by overwhelming and overloading our senses, but instead by doing much the opposite.