Traveling exhibit explores terrorist motivations, public response

A renowned traveling exhibition from the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., made its debut Saturday at the Missouri History Museum.

“Spies, Traitors, Saboteurs: Fear and Freedom in America” opened in 2004 and has been touring since 2005. St. Louis is the final planned stop for the 6,000-square-foot exhibit, which explores nine major terrorist events in U.S. history — the motivations for the attacks, public and government response, and more.

“They want to show that terror and sabotage and espionage — they’re not new things,” says Adam Kloppe, writing and research fellow at the Missouri History Museum. “This isn’t something that started on 9/11 or with the Oklahoma City bombing, but it’s something that’s been with us since the very beginning.”

“Spies, Traitors, Saboteurs” begins its narrative in 1814 when British troops set fire to several public buildings throughout Washington, including the White House, during the War of 1812.

“This is a really good introduction to the idea that terrorism and fear of things that fit under the U.S. government’s definition of terrorism have been here for a long time,” Kloppe says.

The section focused on the attack in 1814 is accompanied by an enlarged copy of a New York Times headline. Similarly, each of the following eight sections is accompanied by a headline that Kloppe says serves a unique purpose in the structure of the exhibit.

“(The headlines) set the scene for what they call a ‘hook’ event, a central event that sort of sets the scene of terror, and then they sort of build out from that theme,” he says.

A later section explores the bombing at the home of 1919 Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer by a group of anarchists and also violence by anarchists and communist groups more generally in the early 20th century.

“A big part of this exhibit is about how law enforcement responds to these acts of terror, in many times and ways that are appropriate, to take steps to protect Americans from violence, but other times in ways that overstep their bounds,” Kloppe says. The Palmer Raids that followed raised concern about the federal government infringing on civil liberties.

Other events featured in the exhibit include the Niihau Incident, the Oklahoma City bombing and the Weather Underground bombing of the Capitol.

The exhibit also features some interactive activities. Poll stations allow visitors to answer questions such as “Do you think spies caught in this country should receive the death penalty?” Visitors can compare their answers to earlier responses, as well as to answers of Americans throughout history.

“I went and saw this exhibit when it was up in Green Bay (Wis.) ... and you really see people spending a lot of time on it, talking with their families and talking about how surprising it is that in the past people voted one way and another way today,” Kloppe says.

“Spies, Traitors, Saboteurs” ends with a brief section on recent terrorist attacks in America, focusing on 9/11. The idea of terrorism as a modern phenomenon, Kloppe says, is why the exhibit ends with framed remnants of one of the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center.

“It’s hard for us to imagine sometimes that our grandparents and their grandparents encountered these kinds of issues, and this exhibit shows that they did,” he says.

What “Spies, Traitors, Saboteurs: Fear and Freedom in America” • When Through May 8 • Where Missouri History Museum, 5700 Lindell Boulevard, Forest Park • How much Free • More infomohistory.org

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Alex SiegmanComment