Apart from the standard dinosaur fare and a few French oils, Denver’s museums tend to reflect their frontier location, with plenty of Native American artwork and old mansions of mining barons. The Counterterrorism Education Learning Lab (also described as the Centre for Empowered Living and Learning), or CELL, does not fit this model. The aim of this somewhat odd two-year-old $6m project—which sits right next to the Daniel Libeskind-designed Denver Art Museum—is not cultural elucidation or historic preservation. Rather, it is a non-profit institution that is all about terrorism: where it comes from, how it manifests itself and what people can do to reduce its threat. Larry Mizel, a local businessman and regular donor to the Republican party, both founded and funded the museum. It is affiliated with his Mizel Museum, a local museum dedicated to Jewish life and culture.
The CELL’s mission, according to its website is “to provide the knowledge and tools needed to proactively effect change in order to help shape a better, safer world.” But how threatening is Denver? This is the CELL’s main point. Its well-crafted interactive exhibition, “Anyone, Anytime, Anywhere: Understanding the Threat of Terrorism“, warns visitors that terrorism affects us all, even those who are far away from centres of power. If this sounds like an expensive, museum-size example of America’s paranoia, that’s because it is.
The museum was built with the expectation that 20,000 people would visit its 6,000 square-foot exhibition each year. But during a recent visit I had the place to myself, amid a high-tech maze of flashing screens and touch-screen displays. The most powerful section, called “Hitting Home”, is a dark room filled with video images that create the feeling of standing in Denver’s city centre. A loud explosion is followed by the sight of whizzing buses and leafy cafes going up in flames, followed by aftermath footage from blast sites in New York, London and elsewhere.
Other displays are about terrorists’ weapons of choice and their use of the media. The last section, called the “Action Center”, shows a local videoabout how to recognise the signs of terrorism (they declare there are eight, such as “surveillance” and “acquiring supplies”) and what to do (ie, call the Colorado Information Analysis Centre). Viewers may notice that the video’s running time is exactly 9 minutes and 11 seconds.
The museum is good at being dark and scary. I walked out into the Colorado sunshine feeling disturbed. Yet Denver’s spreading suburbs seemingly suffer more from a distinctly American banality than ideology-driven angst. Graphic images of a bomb ripping apart downtown Denver seem to fall into the category of fear-mongering. Indeed, the exhibition includes a Rand Corporation expert who notes that the probability of an American of being killed in a terror attack is about one in a million, compared to one-in-7,000 or -8,000 chance of being killed in a car accident.
The CELL is keen to justify its location, offering several links between terrorism and Colorado. In 1984, Alan Berg, a Jewish left-wing talk-radio host in Denver, was gunned down by members of a white supremacist group. In 2009 a man named Najibullah Zazi was arrested in his suburban Denver home in connection with a plot to bomb the New York subway. And in 2010 a Colorado woman named Jamie Paulin-Ramirez (dubbed by the press as “Jihad Jamie”), was detained in connection with a plot to kill a Swedish cartoonist. Other events, such as the Oklahoma City bombings and the attacks on London’s transport, are mentioned here.
But more interesting is what the CELL does not include, namely the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado, which is certainly the state’s closest experience with indiscriminate and terrorising killing. This more than anything seems to highlight the kind of anxiety the CELL is promoting: a fear of ideological outsiders, rather than a dread of armed Americans.
Ultimately, the CELL offers far more reasons to feel afraid than to feel empowered. The film designed to highlight potential signs of terrorism only confirms just how difficult it is to recognise something suspicious. (How many times can a tourist snap photos of a power plant before the photographer seems odd?) I was hoping for a section on tightening America’s gun laws or ensuring that metropolitan police budgets remain at adequate levels. Not here. Nor is it much fun to get this unnerving “education”. Only roughly 10,000 have seen the exhibition since it opened in 2009, and that’s including the attendance at organised events. This is hardly surprising. In a state as idyllic as Colorado, there are just better places to spend an afternoon.