(Editor's Note: The November Coalition points out that it is Drug Prohibition that potentially finances international terrorist groups, not drugs or drug use. We encourage many Letters-To-The Editor to USA Today, showcasing the convoluted logic of such tenuous connections. See www.usatoday.com for details on where to send LTEs, and see MAPInc's Writer's Resources for pointers on how to write a letter.)
NEW YORK - The crumpled green 1994 Thunderbird is a jarring sight in the lobby of One Times Square. The driver, DEA agents say, was high on cocaine, barbiturates and marijuana when he hit and killed a 31-year-old Ohio woman. The man is serving 10 years.
The car is the opening assault in an exhibit meant to lay bare the harsh world of illicit drugs from the intensely personal car accident to the global financing of rebel armies and terrorists.
Target America: Drug Traffickers, Terrorists and You is an expanded version of a Drug Enforcement Administration Museum traveling exhibit that opens here Tuesday.
The exhibit, housed in three floors of borrowed space, is designed to illustrate through graphic photos and artifacts the societal costs of the production, trafficking and use of illegal drugs.
"I want Americans to realize that, although they may not use drugs, everyone is impacted by drug use in this country," DEA administrator Karen Tandy says. "That car represents the threat to every one of us on the road."
The car is the centerpiece of a field of debris piled in the lobby ofthe tall retail-and-office building. The wreck is surrounded by drug paraphernalia and barrels of chemicals used to make methamphetamine, as well as broken toys representing children neglected by drug-addled parents.
The overriding theme of the exhibit, visible from Times Square through plate-glass windows, is the link between drug trafficking and global terrorism.
The exhibit invites visitors to trace the path of cocaine and heroin from drug labs in Afghanistan and Colombia to the pockets of insurgents in Colombia and Peru and to such terrorist organizations as Hezbollah.
But it also makes a more controversial link between terrorism and the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The exhibit includes a large display of debris collected from both sites.
The exhibit does not specifically tie the attacks to drug trafficking, but it uses the events to explain how terrorists use the drug trade as one of several methods to fund attacks. It cites U.S. intelligence linking the Taliban in Afghanistan, and by extension its thriving heroin economy, to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda.
"Someone who thinks he or she is making an individual choice that won't harm anyone else is not seeing the larger picture of where their money eventually goes," says Anthony Placido, special agent in charge of the New York division of the DEA.
In Peru, for example, Shining Path insurgents "killed thousands of people, destroyed the economy, reduced the country to rubble, and paid for it all with the cocaine trade," Placido says.
After 9/11, Americans shifted their focus from the war on drugs to the war on terror, Placido says. The exhibit, he says, will help relate the illicit drug trade to homeland security.
"The same techniques used to smuggle in drugs can be used to smuggle in weapons of mass destruction," Placido says. Terrorists and drug criminals "fish out of the same sewer."
Although the exhibit includes the events of Sept. 11, it takes a broader look at the drug trade, tracing its history from the Silk Road routes between China and Europe, says Sean Fearns, director of the exhibit and also the small DEA museum in the agency's headquarters in Arlington, Va.
The Times Square exhibit is loaded with whiz-bang law enforcement memorabilia. Visitors can peek into an actual cocaine lab uncovered by DEA agents in Colombia, dismantled and shipped to the USA; a Stinger missile launcher; heroin tax receipts from the Taliban; Ecstasy pills; and photos of arrested drug kingpins.
On the second floor, visitors will see a replica of a crack den cluttered with soiled diapers and guns. There are photographs of children rescued from their parents' meth labs, including one who was covered in car battery acid.
A "Wall of Lost Talent" is a display of prom, graduation and school photos of those who have died because of drugs. Visitors are encouraged to leave photos of friends and family members who have been harmed by drugs.
Parts of the exhibit have traveled to other cities, including Dallas and Omaha. Sections may go on the road again; no schedule has been set. In New York, hours are 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily through January. Information: www.usdoj.gov/dea/deamuseum/website/index.html
Admission is free.
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