As the independent commission investigating the September 11th terrorist attacks continues to hear testimony in Washington, in the American heartland, Nebraskans have a rare opportunity to see and touch a small sampling of what was left after those attacks. The twisted beams and melted wires are part of a traveling museum display with an anti-drug message.
Diane Sawyer: There has been some sort of explosion at the World Trade Center in New York City...
Peter Jennings: There is a major fire there and there has been some sort of explosion...
Voices from that fateful day quietly emanate from speakers hidden in the focal point of the Strategic Air and Space Museum's newest exhibit. Museum Director Scott Hazelrigg described the closest thing to "Ground Zero" many Midwesterners will ever see.
"The I-beams that we have as a part of this were pulled from the World Trade Center Site in the weeks after the 9/11 attacks," he said. "Then if you move around the exhibit you will see rubble from the Pentagon as well? about a 2000 pound [900 kg] piece from where the plane impacted that building."
Visitors who get to see and touch this part of the exhibit might have the same kind of reaction curator Brian York and his crew experienced as they set up the display.
"The first piece that we off loaded was actually the pallet that held the rubble," he said. "Everyone was very quiet and very deliberate in everything they did. And once it was set on the ground, everybody stopped and looked and from there on it took a whole new meaning than any other exhibit we've ever set up."
There are only two traveling 9/11 exhibits. The Smithsonian Institution's is primarily historical, with stories of those who were lost and those who survived. This one was assembled by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and is titled: "Target America: Traffickers, Terrorists and You." Visitors are greeted by the image of a woman on a TV screen. She says, "Using drugs is not just illegal and harmful, but also a revenue source for those who would commit terrorist acts."
The exhibit explores that relationship. It features confiscated items such as a Taleban Flag and an AK-47, large photos of terrorists, even a poppy pod representing the leading sources of heroin: Afghanistan, Burma and Laos.
The next interactive part of the exhibit allows visitors to role play as a Drug Enforcement Agency Administrator, deciding how best to spend federal resources to decrease domestic drug demand, cut production and trafficking, and gather valuable intelligence. "Congratulations," the computer says. "You have had a positive impact on the world drug situation this year. Click to begin your second year."
Before opening in Nebraska, Target America was on exhibit in Dallas, Texas for 6 months, attracting 200,000 visitors and a group of protesters. They charged the DEA with exploiting 9/11 to promote its agenda, including more punitive drug laws and more funding for the agency. Nebraska attorney Don Fiedler is a former director of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. He is put off by some of the DEA message, but not all of it.
"This fanning the flames of narco-terrorism is something that has some merit," he said. "Narcotics are one of the tools that terrorists use to fund their operations, but the other question that should come out of it, other than increasing the penalties for use, is to go and re-examine the policies in the first place."
Policies like harsh criminal penalties for possessing even small amounts of marijuana. Mr. Fiedler would like the U.S. government to legalize certain drugs as many European countries are doing and provide better financial incentives for poppy and coca growers to raise other crops. However, the Drug Enforcement Administration stands firm on its current strategy and on the thrust of the exhibit. William Renton, Special Agent in Charge of the DEA St. Louis Division, visited the museum. He warned narco-terrorists threaten democracy everywhere.
"We have placed DEA agents in Afghanistan working with the government that's in place there now to try to combat the growing of opium poppies and the production of heroin in that country," he said. "It is helping to fund al-Qaida terrorism, but it's also helping to fund other efforts that the organizations and warlords are making to destabilize their own government."
Museum Director Scott Hazelrigg has heard the criticism, and the defense. In his view, the drug trafficking-terrorism connection is an integral part of the main story of Target America.
"This exhibit hits you at first with the events of 9/11 and taking you back to the experience of that day," he added. "From that takes one of the threads that gives people a better understanding of the history and the context behind the development of terrorist networks that led to that day."
That "thread" is something visitors to the exhibit appreciate.
"In a way, it almost seems like two different things going on here at the same time, but they really are combined," he said. "You find that out by viewing the displays, but I never really had them connected in that way before. It does help to bring it together."
With or without the drug message, 9/11's twisted I-beams, melted wires, damaged shoes, even a toy that may have graced a desk in the Twin Towers speak volumes to every visitor.