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The Marathon bombing images we can’t forget

The thermal image released by the Massachusetts State Police Air Wing, showing the boat and Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on April 19, 2013.

getty images

The thermal image released by the Massachusetts State Police Air Wing, showing the boat and Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on April 19, 2013.

The situation — who can forget? — was hot: A terrorist on the loose; a region in lockdown; a suburb bristling with firepower; a helicopter bouncing around in 30-mile-per-hour winds.

That helicopter was just 2 miles away when the call came. It was on the scene in seconds. Three state troopers hovered over a shrink-wrapped boat in Watertown.

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One of the three, Mark Spencer, piloted the helicopter. Another, Edward Mathurin, operated a camera equipped with forward-looking infrared, or heat-detecting, technology. A third, Eric Fairchild, used radio to inform tactical crews on the ground of what he was seeing.

What he was seeing was truly haunting. Images that, responding to body heat, were nonetheless implacably cool. Images so intimate and yet strangely aloof that they are unlikely to be forgotten.

There are many images from the Boston Marathon bombings that are hard to get out of one’s mind — mostly because they were bloody, chaotic, raw. These aerial images were different.

They showed the breathing, moving body of 19-year-old bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Badly injured, he was cowering under the plastic tarpaulin of a boat still slumbering, after a long winter, in a suburban backyard.

The pictures’ legibility seemed to surprise even the troopers. Forward-looking infrared (or FLIR) devices, it turns out, are not always able to see through material. But in this case, as Mathurin explained, they were able to get on a wavelength that could “look right through the plastic.”

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What was revealed, he said, “was a perfect silhouette of a human being, it wasn’t just a heat source.”

In the wake of that week of ructions, which saw random images and stray story lines fly around like detritus in a tornado, it was easy enough to take these strange, aerial images of the suspect in stride. They were just another byproduct of an unprecedented police action involving “airborne assets,” “sheltering in place” and SWAT teams scouring Watertown streets in military armor. Another improbable revelation in a week of madness.

But weeks later I continue to be haunted by them, and to ask myself, each time I see them, “What am I looking at?”

It’s awful to say, but the category of image these FLIR pictures most closely resemble is one that most modern parents will instantly recognize: ultrasound images of babies in wombs. Even the format, with its markers of scale, its digital signals of scientific neutrality, looks familiar.

Did Tsarnaev’s family make this connection? Probably not. But what was it like for his friends to see these images? For a while, they may have been the only visual aid they had as they struggled to reconcile the “sweetheart,” the laconic, pot-smoking pal they thought they knew, with the repugnant murderer he was now accused of being — the target of a massive manhunt.

Terrorists, we know, set out in advance to produce spectacular images. They seek to make terror a communal experience, exploiting our 24-hour-news-cycle culture to make it as communal as possible. Searing pictures into millions of minds becomes part of their cynical calculation.

That is what made 9/11 so diabolical. Once seen, no one could erase those terrifying yet hauntingly distant images from the mind.

The images of the explosions at the Boston Marathon were different. No matter how many times they were replayed on TV newscasts, they never stopped being what they fundamentally were: heart-wrenching images of wanton destruction. They exerted no mesmerizing fascination or pull beyond that. Violent, bloody (in a way that 9/11 wasn’t; it was simply too massive), and literally too close for comfort, they were images to recoil from.

The more remarkable images from the Marathon bombings came not from the bombings themselves but from the police operation that followed. In fact, it’s astounding what a central role images played in this operation. For this reason alone, they’re worth analyzing more closely.

It began with a deluge of photographs and security camera footage. At the beginning of the week, this cascade of images had threatened to overwhelm investigators.

But within a short time, the images had been distilled to a handful of stills of the two prime suspects. These showed — or seemed to show — the suspects in the Marathon crowd, carrying their sinister parcels in backpacks and then, having presumably deposited them, blithely walking away.

They had the arbitrary cropping and flickering pulse of certain kinds of street photography. If they were remarkable for one thing, it was the aura of callow unconcern that seemed to emanate from the two capped figures.

Who knows if this emanation is an innate property of all snapshots and security footage, or if it was truly given off by the suspects themselves? It was certainly hard not to project it onto them. In their caps, they looked unlikely, at best. They weren’t even adequately disguised.

Either way, the tension between their appearance of cool disregard and our retrospective suspicion of appallingly sinister intent made the images disturbing.

Police released them to the public in a reluctant roll of the dice three days after the bombings. They knew these photographs would most likely tip the suspects off. What they couldn’t have known was how much chaos would ensue: a murdered MIT security officer, a carjacking, a terrifying shoot-out, a capture, one suspect’s death, a getaway, a regional lockdown, and, finally, thermal images of a teenage male huddled inside a boat in Watertown.

In art, people routinely talk about colors being “warm” or “cool.” Whole images, in a different sense, can have a “warm” or “cool” affect. Unleashed emotions are warm, or hot. Restraint and deliberation tend to be cool. Great art — a Jackson Pollock drip painting, for instance, or a portrait by Ingres — often sustains a volatile tension between the two.

Scientific imagery is inevitably cool, even if its subject — a baby in utero, a nuclear explosion — is emotionally hot. But what happens when the instrument producing such imagery is literally detecting heat — is giving us the clear outlines of a warmblooded human animal hiding in someone’s backyard?

And what happens when that person is believed to be a callous murderer, yet to be brought to justice?

We might want to ask troopers Mathurin and Fairchild, who were seeing these images in real time. With their helicopter’s fuel reserves running down, this strange film must have unfolded incredibly slowly for them. Whatever was happening (was the suspect preparing to come out firing? Would he blow himself up? Would he shoot at them?) must have seemed to be taking forever to happen. (Later, Fairchild’s colleagues praised him “for his cool performance in what was a very hot, and very fluid situation.”)

Seeing these thermal images, I was reminded of Don DeLillo, writing about the experience of watching video artist Douglas Gordon’s radically slowed-down version of the shower scene in Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” What he saw, wrote DeLillo, was “something near to elemental life; a thing receding into its drugged parts. Janet Leigh in the detailed process of not knowing what is about to happen to her.”

That, in a way, is how it felt after a week of high drama and a long day of “sheltering in place” — everything suddenly narrowing to this tiny glow, this “heat signature,” like the small, lingering square of light you see on old TV sets after they have been switched off. A thing “receding into its drugged parts.”

“Jahar man if u can read this just turn urself in for the sake of ur parents,” one friend texted the fleeing suspect that day. It was too late.

In the end, these images are, perhaps, not “like” or “unlike” anything. Yet the more they resist interpretation, the more mesmerizing they become. They are a disturbing amalgam of fiction and hyperreality, of the shadows in Plato’s cave and Superman’s X-ray vision.

Certainly, they make you wonder, as you drive through the quiet streets of Watertown, or Newton, or Arlington, or Jamaica Plain, if it will be possible soon to return to normality, to what DeLillo called “the strange bright fact that breathes and eats out there, the thing that’s not the movies.”

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.

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