Pubdate: Wed, 29 Sep 2004
Source: Reason Online (US Web)
Copyright: 2004 The Reason Foundation
Author: Nick Gillespie
Note:  Nick Gillespie is editor-in-chief of Reason and the editor of 
Choice: The Best of Reason.
Cited: DEA Museum


The DEA Brings Reefer Madness to the Big Apple

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 

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.