Spy Museum Takes a Crack at Terrorism
By Ken Ringle
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, May 8, 2004; Page C01
Ambitious in conception and frustratingly fuzzy in execution, "The Enemy Within: Terror in America -- 1776 to Today" at the International Spy Museum manages to confuse as much as it clarifies, and what a shame that is.
The ostensible subject of the museum's special exhibit is the history of terrorism in the United States and the eternal tension between homeland security and the personal freedom that is at the heart of the American experiment. What could be more timely as well as instructive to the museum-going public?
Unfortunately, "The Enemy Within" muddies the issue from the start, not only by failing to define "terrorism" but by lumping it with all sorts of other questionable activities, from espionage and subversion to political radicalism.
The museum even falls prey to that omnipresent fraud of our touchy-feely age, the interactive computer poll: What do you think terrorism is, perceptive 10-year-old? You tell us and then we'll know!
The result, despite a number of provocative and educational moments, is that visitors may leave with the impression that terrorism is whatever makes one uneasy.
It shouldn't have been that difficult to frame the question. Terrorism, according to almost every dictionary, is the use of violence -- or the threat of violence -- to intimidate or coerce, especially for political purposes. But what does that encompass and exclude? Terrorism is a means of war, but are all acts of war terrorism?
The exhibit includes as an act of terrorism the burning of Washington by the British during the War of 1812, even though British troops torched mainly public buildings and pointedly left most private citizens unmolested. It also includes the 1916 bombing of a New York harbor munitions depot by German saboteurs. But the exhibit's display panels note that the Germans weren't trying to terrify Americans (who weren't yet in World War I); they were intent on interrupting the flow of American arms to the Allies.
Were the actions of the American Communist Party during the Cold War terrorism? Perhaps, since many Communists favored the violent overthrow of the government. But given the perpetual impotence of our home-grown Red organizations, wasn't most of the "terror" people felt about them self-inflicted? Isn't that different from what happened on 9/11?
Since the exhibit wants to examine government efforts to fight terrorism, it justifiably explores the way fears of anarchist plots and bombings in the 1920s led to the establishment of the FBI and a general governmental paranoia about the political views imported by immigrant "aliens." Legitimate pressures for social change were often feared or discounted just because radicals had voiced them loudest. But what, exactly, does that have to do with terrorism?
Left unexplored is the answer to that question. The social contract at the root of America's system of representative government is that the instrument of political change is the ballot. As long as they were denied the right to vote, nonrepresented groups -- blacks, women, Asians and others -- arguably might have been justified in using violence as a means of political expression, though surprisingly they rarely did. Once enfranchised, however, any such acts of violence by them or any other eligible voter must be defined as terrorism. Initiating change by registering and organizing voters takes infinitely more patience and hard work than blowing something up. But it usually gets more dependable results.
Without making that necessary point, the exhibit quite correctly labels as terrorism the violence of the Weather Underground and other bomb-throwing radical student groups of the '60s and '70s, who justified their actions as means of opposing the war in Vietnam.
Yet for reasons known only to the curators, this balanced exploration of that era is augmented by an "exclusive" videotaped interview with violent radical and onetime fugitive Bernardine Dohrn. Now tricked out as a carefully coifed middle-age housewife, Dohrn tells us she still believes her cause was right and still marches onward and upward with the movement. Just what movement remains unclear -- perhaps building bombs and blowing up people and buildings whenever you disagree with policy. One is tempted to ask the curators why they didn't also show us interviews with Osama bin Laden and Timothy McVeigh.
In a few places, the "The Enemy Within" redeems itself by asking us to consider whether controversial figures in American history were, indeed, the terrorists the government considered them to be. Was labor organizer Joe Hill? What about political radical Emma Goldman? The exhibit also displays an intriguing timeline charting terrorist acts through the years by era and category. Though it lumps some a bit too freely, it's a provocative presentation and almost worth a visit to the museum all by itself.
One part of the exhibit, however, can only be described as bizarre. It tells us that a Japanese pilot returning from the attack on Pearl Harbor crash-landed his plane on the tiny Hawaiian island of Niihau, and with the help of one Japanese American, took hostages and terrorized the community. We are told this incident helped trigger the fears that led to the incarceration of 120,000 innocent Japanese Americans during World War II. That assertion is not only outrageous, it is patently false.
The racial hysteria against the Japanese Americans -- which has been amply documented in dozens of books, government reports and court records -- had nothing to do with the Niihau incident, which was not widely reported at the time and is virtually unknown today. It had to do with a combination of racial prejudice, economic opportunism by West Coast business interests and simple panic at the speed with which the Empire of Japan swept through Southeast Asia and the Philippines in the weeks immediately after Pearl Harbor. It also had to do with "Yellow Peril" race-baiting by journalists and broadcasters on the West Coast and by such politicians as future U.S. chief justice Earl Warren.
"The Enemy Within" correctly notes that not one of the interned Japanese Americans was ever found guilty of sabotage, treason or any other enemy act, and that the Niihau incident was an aberration. Then why include it? Had the Niihau incident been significant, then Japanese Americans in the Hawaiian Islands would have been interned. Unlike their counterparts on the West Coast, they never were.
Parents are warned that "given the frightening topic," young children may find the experience of the exhibition "too intense." Oh, please. Those children experience 10 times more violence in an hour watching television than they'll get at the Spy Museum. By all means, take them. Despite the exhibit's flaws, they just might learn some American history.
"The Enemy Within: Terror in America -- 1776 to Today," at the International Spy Museum, 800 F St. NW. 202-393-7798. Open seven days a week, 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Special exhibit admission fee: adults $5, seniors, students, active military and intelligence community $4, children ages 5 to 11 $3, children under 5 and Spy Museum members free.
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