For more than four years -- since the day of the first anniversary of the 9-11 attacks -- the US Drug Enforcement Administration and its museum have hosted an exhibit that attempts to link drugs and terrorism. Known as Target America: Opening Eyes to the Damage Drugs Cause, the traveling exhibition has aroused much grumbling and sneering from people who argue that it is not drugs but drug prohibition that generates the illicit profits sometimes used by violent political groups.
It all started with some home-town concern on the part of Illinois State University theater arts professor and Drug War Rant blog author Peter Guither. After publicizing the exhibit's impending arrival on his blog and creating a new web site, DEA Targets America, the response from readers galvanized Guither, and allies began to arrive. By the time the exhibit hit Chicago last week, activists were on hand to hand out flyers in front of the museum and Guither and Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) had issued press releases in an effort to draw media attention.
"I e-mailed our members in the Chicago area, and we were able to get some people to hand out flyers," said Angell. "We have some good people in the area."
The gambit paid off handsomely with a Washington Post story last Saturday titled "Drug-Terror Connection Disputed." That story, which was also picked up by newspapers in Knoxville, Indianapolis, and Tampa, quoted both Guither and SSDP's Angell, as well as Chicago teacher Jeanne Barr, who is also a member of SSDP. Congressional Quarterly also ran a story about the exhibit mentioning the contention that it is drug prohibition -- not drugs themselves -- that feeds terrorism, and even UPI ran a short piece mentioning the controversy on its international wire, a story that was picked up by the Washington Times.
The stories put the DEA on the defensive, with spokesmen Steve Robertson telling the Post: "We're a law enforcement agency -- we enforce the laws as they are written. Congress makes the laws. People say if we didn't have drug laws there wouldn't be a problem, but there was a problem before and that's why laws were established."
"I think we got the DEA flatfooted," said Guither. "You have that agent saying they just enforce the law, but they're out there lobbying for those laws. I don't think the DEA was ready for this."
"We did a little bit of judo on the DEA," said SSDP's Angell. "We took their message and spun it right back around on them. Reporters were intrigued by what we were saying. On the one hand, we were agreeing with the DEA's main point -- that profits from the black market drug trade can finance terrorism -- but we highlighted the fact that they are leaving out a large part of the story," he told the Chronicle.
"I was disappointed in the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times, though," Angell continued. "They just toed the DEA line. They didn't mention us by name or give us any quotes; they just had a line or two about 'critics say this.'"
Guither said he didn't really expect anything better from the local press. "Since both the Sun-Times and the McCormick Tribune Corporation were sponsors of the exhibit, I didn't expect either paper to do much criticizing. The mere fact that they mentioned critics saying the exhibit is propaganda is a victory in my view."
Activists were careful to target their ire at the DEA, not the Museum of Science and Technology. "We didn't want to protest the museum but the DEA," said Guither. "And we didn't feel like we could get into picking their implied falsehoods apart, so our focus was on the inappropriateness of the DEA connecting drugs to terrorism since it is prohibition that makes drug trafficking and its profits possible. Also, since this is Chicago, we have the whole Al Capone legacy. Mayor Daley invited this exhibit, yet he seems to have missed the whole connection between drug prohibition and alcohol prohibition and how the latter made Al Capone. What we have with this exhibit is a federal agency with a failing scorecard blowing its own horn and linking itself to the war on terror, when it is really the problem."
While the DEA lists no more cities on its traveling exhibit schedule, SSDP will be ready to go if and when the DEA show hits another city. "Since we already have the materials and the press releases, we'll just follow it wherever it goes," said Angell. "If we have people on the ground, we will organize them to pass out materials. They should know we're coming after them. If we annoy them enough, maybe they'll go away one of these days."
"I'm very pleased," said Guither. "This was fun. If we hadn't done what we did, it would have been the standard announcement: Here's a new educational exhibit. Bring your kids to learn about the dangers of drugs and how the DEA is saving you. But because of the work we did here, we've managed to turn this around on the DEA. That feels good."