Terrorist as Contagious Other

Curator's Note

The notion of infected bodies as weapons dates back to the 14th century, when the Black Plague was making its way through Europe, the Near East, and North Africa. History has it that the Mongol army threw plague-infected bodies into besieged cities in order to transmit disease to their enemies. Since 9/11, various permutations of biowarfare in contemporary film and television plotlines began literalizing fears of “terrorist as contagious other,” whether the genetically-engineered virus was released accidentally, as in 28 Days Later (Boyle, 2002) or intentionally, as in season three of 24 (Fox, 2003-2004). Anxieties about contagious disease combined with growing fears of terrorist attack to reinvent “the ticking time-bomb” and, therefore, redefine the paradigm of fear.

For example, season three of 24 revolves around a terrorist-threatened viral outbreak in Los Angeles. When the terrorist eventually takes action, it is by leaving the virus in a detonation device within a hotel’s ventilation system: the virus becomes the threat, replacing the traditional explosive device. In Global Effect (Terry Cunningham, 2002) and the Blacklist episode “The Front” (NBC, Oct. 20, 2014) this technique gets a twist: the intentionally infected person, wandering the streets, spreading the virus passively, is the threat. The threat is literally humanized: the “bomb” is the person. In Covert One: The Hades Factor (CBS, April 9, 2006), the infected person becomes the carrier who smuggles the virus into the country. Once the carrier is sufficiently sick and infectious, his blood is taken and put into a detonation device, similar in design to the one used in 24. The compelling difference, however, is the way the strategy used by the terrorists in The Hades Factor plays on already existing fears of healthy-looking carriers, reinventing the trope of the “suicide bomber.”

In these post-9/11 examples, unlike with early forms of biowarfare, the infected bodies are still alive and not necessarily obviously infected, giving them the ability to move around and spread the virus to unknowing victims. The bomb has evolved from being an explosive, to being a virus, to being an infected person who also literally explodes. The idea of terrorist as contagious threat is fully realized.



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