Washington D.C. “amusements” are not what they seem…

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, my wife, kids and I headed to Washington D.C. for a family vacation to do what we do best: cram our brains full of information and knowledge while having fun and great family bonding time. The side benefit was to enlighten our 19 and 13 year olds about the history of the United States.

What I absolutely did not expect was that this would be an educational event for my wife and I too and one of the most troubling trips I’ve taken since Germany in 1997 to connect with my ancestry and realizing my extended family were Nazi soldiers — albeit grunts brought into service as infantry — but needing to at least consider what my grandfather and father would’ve done had my great, great grandparents stayed in Germany.

We saw many things and experienced more — the Mall memorials: Lincoln, Washington, WWII, Vietnam were especially impactful — but there were four that turned out to be profound events:

1) National Archives: Viewing the Declaration of Independence, Constitution and the Bill of Rights. To gaze upon these documents, deepen our understanding of what our Founding Fathers went through to create this Republic, the people who’ve fought and died sense to preserve our freedoms and rights and how our current age of so-called “terrorism” has allowed the amazing erosion of both through, for example, warrantless wiretapping, brought home to me the absolute imperative that we all stay alert and take steps to ensure we elect representation that will fight for and protect our freedoms…and win the battles.

2) Holocaust museum. I’m sad to report that I rolled my eyes in disgust when this museum was first announced since — at the time before I was “more awake” as I am now — I thought there was no need for such a remembrance on American soil. I’m a student of World War II history and especially Germany as I’ve grappled for years with how the citizenry of this cultured country could have ever allowed the Nazi’s to gain power.

After touring this place and experiencing the step-by-step methods the Nazi’s used to seize power from a slumbering citizenry, dehumanize the Jews and support the coming genocide, instill such fear in to the people that millions felt powerless to resist, I sadly realized how simple it would be to do the same sort of thing in this country since most of my fellow American’s are fat, dumb and happy and not yet fully awakened to the slippery slope we’re sliding down as a nation. If we the people don’t stay vigilant, the powerful will continue to seize and wield power in ways I view as counter to the Constitution.

The last two places we went to were, however, the biggest surprises…

3) International Spy Museum. This was THE most troubling place of all, though everyone else (including the staff I talked to) was wholly unaware of the happy, jovial, delightful positioning of a discipline (spying) built on lies, deception, deceit, and that this necessary but distasteful profession may not necessarily be the stuff a family experience should blindly accept (though their site has podcasts, education programs and more).

This multiple million dollar museum is amazing, huge and the lines to get in enormous. Their spy store was well stocked (though few were buying stuff for some reason) and it was fun to go through this comprehensive homage to the intelligence apparatus and community. All was light, fun, full of intrigue and as I went through it was clear that this spy game was fundamental and critical to ensure the freedoms we enjoy.

It wasn’t until I got to the very last area, a small theater where a film was playing, that I stopped dead in my tracks and my jaw dropped. The film was all about the changing game of intelligence gathering (i.e., spying) and what it meant in a day of “terrorism”. I realized to my horror that this entire museum trip was greasing the skids for this last film and that the entire museum experience was an educational event for everyone who went through it about spying (on your neighbors?), deception, and that whatever was done in the name of halting or stopping “terrorism” was justified.

But it got worse when we went in to a separate experience called “Operation Spy” (read the happy-assed, no critical thinking exhibited article on this ‘experience’ in the Washington Post here).

My son and I went in to this experience and as we walked in the door we were suddenly within the fictional town of Khandar as spies about to embark on a grand adventure.

I was stunned and learned later that, when questioned, the staff was instructed to describe this place as being located in “central Asia” but it was such a laughingly blatant Middle Eastern town (and the name “Khandar”  too close to the recognizable “Khandahar” province in Afghanistan to be a simple coincidence) that I was instantly on guard and intrigued on how this adventure would play out.

It got more twisted. Our mission? To discover a missing nuclear trigger device. It involved a lie detector test of a suspect (I flippantly said to one staffer, our leader, “Oooh….are we going to waterboard her?” in order to get people thinking) and I had an extremely hard time participating. Afterward, I ended up talking at length with the young man who led us through the “experience” to discover if he had an inkling on what this museum and Operation Spy were intended to do to the participants. He did not but as we talked I could see him visibly change his demeanor as it sunk in.

Obviously this experience was designed to impress upon the participants how tough it is to gather intelligence and discover the truth, find weapons of mass destruction, capture them, and how those strange foreign people with funny writing, accents and are and perhaps deserving of our invasion into their offices and homes. We are, after all, talking about a nuclear triggering device so any means are necessary to ensure our safety, right?

Disclaimer: I should point out that there wasn’t any blatant attempt at dehumanizing Muslim’s (nor any mention of religion), no positioning of us as “infidels”, or any other overt methods since subtlety is an imperative in a literate society, though two other adults in the experience also commented on troubling aspects of the positioning and location of this “central Asia country.”

4) Newseum. We walked by this not-yet-open space and my heart leapt with joy. Why? As they say on their site, “The Newseum — a 250,000-square-foot museum of news — will offer visitors an experience that blends five centuries of news history with up-to-the-second technology and hands-on exhibits.” but if you read the site, look at the list of donors, and think about it for awhile this could instead be the “Museum of the First Amendment“. At least that’s what I’m hoping it will be: a must-see venue that families will flock to (like they do to the Spy Museum) and be presented with news, approaches and critical thinking that makes them stop and consider.

One of my favorite quotes is this one:  Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost. Thomas Jefferson in a letter to Dr. James Currie (January, 1786).   

I fear that the business of news is outweighing the essence of the press and that as the business end fights for its life that the willingness to investigate, to disclose deception and lies, will be subjugated by power and be diluted. Maybe, just maybe, the Newseum will be a showcase to the ideal that truth equals liberty.

I’m sitting here typing this right now smiling over what an impact this trip made on me. My kids were a bit agitated — and apologetic to the staffers at the museums — as I asked questions, probed the presentations and thought critically about them vs. just blindly accepting whatever was provided. Unfortunately, most appeared to be enjoying the museums without question.

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1 Comment

  1. james on November 26, 2007 at 2:26 pm

    Cool roundup. I’d love to see the spy museum and newseum.

    I felt the same way seeing the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis as you probably did at the Holocaust Museum. The comprehensiveness at times were overwhelming – and it’s good to have these establishments on our soil.

    All the best…



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