The Newseum, one of Washington D.C.’s newer museums, recently launched a temporary exhibit covering the 100-year anniversary of the FBI – called “G-Men and Journalists.” If you are in Washington DC and can swallow the pretentious price tag ($20 per ticket in a town filled with some of the nation’s best museums which are free to the public), it’s worth a few hours of your time.
Like most of the exhibits at the Newseum, G-Men and Journalists offers more a tour of current affairs and history-in-the-making than any final verdict on a particular topic. The first rough draft of history, as they say. The exhibit’s subject matter runs the gamut – from the FBI’s reputation-forging War on Crime during the Depression Era, with shootouts with the likes of Dillinger, Ma Barker and Pretty Boy Floyd, to the Lindberg Kidnapping and the counter-culture violence of the Sixties and Seventies to the less political and more sociological terrorism of the Nineties.
The perspective, however, is less from the pen of a J.Edgar Hoover or Louis Freeh than from the typewriter of a Walter Winchell or Jack Anderson, popular journalists of their day. Winchell was one of the FBI’s most reliable friends, Anderson one of their most reliable critics. Each served his purpose. Winchell helped personally set up the surrender of the boss of Murder Inc.; Anderson helped peel back the layers of secrecy that allowed Hoover to spy on American citizens.
You can see the death mask of John Dillinger, complete with nicks in the cheekbones resulting from a hail of bullets; you can run your fingers along the Unabomber’s surreal cabin, small and crude and seemingly incapable of housing the mad soul of Ted Kaczynski ; you can see the crankshaft that was thrown hundreds of yards when Timothy McVeigh left a Ryder truck parked next to the Oklahoma City Federal Building; and you can examine a courtroom model of a banal-looking blue Caprice, where DC Snipers John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo took aim at innocents from the safety of its nearly closed trunk.
You need not be a g-man or a journalist to appreciate this exhibit, though you do probably need a stout heart. By the end of the tour, the air will likely have been sucked out of you and you’ll find yourself needing a break in the sunlight. The crime explored in the initial displays, safe with the distance of nearly a century, seem almost like caricature – the Lady in the Red Dress, Bonnie and Clyde, Baby Face Nelson. Even the weapons seem – wrongly – like playthings, the props of a James Cagney movie. As you move forward, though, the weapons take on more recognizable and chilling features, the kind of killing tools we face today. Even the unusual ones, like Kaczynski’s pipe bomb – simple, crude, with household nails built into the casing for no other purpose than to slice flesh. The violence of the crimes loses any halo of Robin Hood mythology. Video of Waco, with agents searching desperately for the children in the compound as it crumbles in flames, set afire by Koresh and his followers, the parents of these same children. A fireman walking away from the destruction of Oklahoma City, a one-year-old little girl, hair wet with blood, dying in his arms.
And you’re left to reflect on this notion that John Dillinger was ever held up in American popular culture as some kind of folk hero. That Sixties-era radicals, who planted bombs in our neighborhoods, are embraced in some quarters today as, to use the words of Chicago mayor Richard Daley, “valued members” of the community. On the grotesque line of logic that leads some anti-government extremists to hold up Timothy McVeigh as a martyr.
And as you trudge out of the G-Men and Journalists exhibit, on your way to the 9/11 exhibit, you find yourself in need of that break, fresh air and sunlight and some sense of faith that we aren’t really like this.