Two cheers for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), whose latest public relations effort usefully reminds us that propaganda is not simply intellectually dishonest. It's also morally repulsive.
Even critical news accounts of the DEA's traveling exhibit, "Target America: Drug Traffickers, Terrorists, and You" don't quite convey the truly repugnant nature of this taxpayer- and government-contractor-funded display of drug war hysteria. Originally created in 2002, the exhibit debuted in a newly expanded version on September 14 in the lobby of One Times Square—the famous triangular building in arguably the busiest intersection in America—and there it will stay until January 2005, courtesy of the folks at the DEA, the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the biometric technology maker CrossMatch, and many others.
Target America is intended to underscore how "narco-terrorism is only one of the many costs and consequences to society of illegal drug abuse." To that end, the exhibit features a mangled 1994 Thunderbird that reportedly blew up during a methamphetamine run. Titled "What Remains," the installation features pictures of children and spouses and several tricycles strewn around for effect. Completing the grim scene is an endless TV loop that features punk rock icon Henry Rollins solemnly reminding anyone passing by that meth kills.
Other installations include "short histories" of the cocaine and opium trade. Whatever the creators intended, these brief accounts do little more than prove the uselessness of trying to ban intoxicants that people have wanted to use throughout recorded history. The history of cocaine—which notes that people have used it for over 4,000 years!—fairly screams that coke has always been it. Similarly, the history of opium traces that drug's origins back to 3,400 B.C. The unintended message to visitors: You might as well try to keep the sun from rising as try to keep people from these things. Far from documenting the need for such eradication efforts, the histories reveal them to be Sisyphean tasks—and not particularly heroic ones at that.
In the end, the exhibit's reason for being is to equate casual drug use with "narco-terrorism"—and it's that equation which sets a new standard in government mendacity. (Well, perhaps not exactly new: This message was pioneered by a post-9/11 series of television ads produced by the Office of National Drug Control Policy that rightly elicited widespread derision.) The idea here is that terrorist groups sometimes traffic in illegal drugs to fund their deadly activities; if you use illegal drugs, then you are complicit in terrorist actions.
Like any good propaganda claim, it's not so much flat-out wrong as it is woefully—and purposefully—incomplete and misdirected. Some terrorist groups have indeed trafficked in illegal drugs because of the huge, black market profits involved and the lack of legal oversight. Similarly, drug traffickers (especially in Latin America) have committed acts of terrorism to protect their trade. Needless to say, the one clear solution to such problems is nowhere discussed in "Target America." If the drug trade were legalized, black market profits—and violence—would disappear. When is the last time terrorists used, say, the tobacco trade to finance their operations?
Yet just a few miles uptown from the site of the demolished World Trade Center, "Target America" links the drug trade with the 9/11 attacks in a way that is simultaneously vague, evasive, and unmistakable. Its official account of drug-related terrorism includes such acts as the 1975 bombing of a Wall Street bar by Puerto Rican separatists and the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979—events that, however horrific, had nothing to do with drug trade. Indeed, "Target America" explicitly acknowledges that drug money is not the only source for terrorism funding—even as all of its images strive to create the impression that a Midwestern meth kitchen is somehow a branch office of al Qaeda.
The focal point of "Target America" is an evocative hunk of wreckage from Ground Zero—of twisted metal, concrete, and wire—that features an endless tape loop of news broadcasts about the 9/11 attacks. Nearby displays feature intercut photos of the attacks, of Bin Laden, of meth labs, of drug users. The intended messages are unmistakable: If you've smoked a joint, then you are implicated in one of the most horrific mass murders in world history. If you are against the drug war, then you are for the terrorists.
As Drug Policy Alliance head Ethan Nadelman has asked rhetorically, "With this exhibit, is the DEA saying that Governor George Pataki, Mayor Bloomberg, and hundreds of thousands of other New Yorkers who have used illegal drugs are responsible for [9/11] and other acts of terrorism?"
The short answer is a barely qualified yes. "While not always involving the same groups, drugs and terror frequently flourish in the same environments," reads part of the exhibit's text. "It is no small wonder…that opium production and terrorism flourishes in Afghanistan, just as coca production and terrorism flourish in other countries such as Colombia."
But you could just as easily point out that it is no small wonder that drug prohibition and terrorism—and all other sorts of criminal behavior—flourish in the same environments.
The brightest ray of hope regarding "Target America"? When I spent 30 minutes or so checking out the exhibit on a recent weekday morning, I was the only visitor. The rest of New York was far too busy to bother with such a display. And, one assumes, far too smart to buy its message.