The Problem With the Cell Isn't What's Inside — It's Who Isn't Inside

Last Friday, on the sixth night of Hanukkah, the Front Range Jewish Voice for Peace chapter gathered a group of Jews, Muslims and Christians to protest the "fear and paranoia" of Syrian refugees and Muslims they claimed was being spread by the Cell: the Counterterrorism Education Learning Lab, the world's only museum dedicated specifically to terrorism. Estimates of the crowd ranged from 46 (the organizers’ count) to 25 (the Cell’s estimate) — which meant that, at the very least, there were 24 more people outside the Cell that night than had been inside when I’d visited the place the day before.

“The displays uniformly emphasized Islamist acts immensely out of proportion to the situation existing in the real world,” says the JVP’s Saadia Behar. “A smattering of other types of terrorism is shown, but it seems perfunctory, a pretense intended as a nod to balanced coverage.”

But after two recent trips to the Cell — after the attacks in Paris and then again after Donald Trump shut the door on Muslims and opened up the country to real charges of Islamophobia — I have to disagree. The problem isn’t what’s inside the Cell, but who’s inside. More specifically, who’s not inside: Some of the JVP protesters had never been inside the Cell, and that’s true of too many other people in this city, even when terrorism is the top topic on everyone's minds — and the focus of last night's Republican presidential candidate debate.

The Cell opened in this sleek, and high-traffic, spot at 99 West 12th Avenue by the Denver Art Museum seven years ago, when it was known as the Center for Empowered Living and Learning.

The name has since changed to reflect a changed world, but some of the Cell’s contents are badly in need of an update. These days, no one really needs a celebrity like John Elway to instruct them on Recognizing 8 Signs of Terrorism in a video that shows good citizens reporting suspicious behavior by flipping open their phones. The terrors both abroad and here at home are all too real.

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A digital crawl outside the building, courtesy the Denver Post, shows the latest news on terror; last Thursday, the headlines were all about San Bernardino. Inside, a display shows three front-page stories of recent terrorist acts: the slaughter of innocents in Paris, the shootings at that San Bernardino holiday party — and three murders at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood Center by a white American that have yet to be officially declared an act of terrorism, despite petitions from residents and requests from NARAL that it be investigated as exactly that. 

“At the end of the day, for victims of these attacks, it’s hellacious,” says longtime Cell executive director Melanie Pearlman. “Whether it’s labeled terrorism or not, it’s terrifying.”

A more permanent display, titled “Terrorism Shakes Colorado,” includes short summaries of the environmental terrorism in Vail committed by ELF back in 1998, the recruitment of Jihad Jamie, the Leadville woman turned would-be terrorist bride; and the odd beauty-salon purchases of Najibullah Zazi, the Afghan-American who set out from Aurora to launch suicide bombs in New York subways in 2009. The display may be outdated (no mention of the four — count ’em, four — teenage girls from Denver suburbs who all tried to join ISIS last year), but it’s definitely inclusive.

After a closed-door multimedia display in which you experience what would happen if terrorists blew up what would seem to be the People’s Fair at Civic Center Park (the turkey legs are a good clue), you head to the final room, where, as Elway points out suspicious backpacks, a whiteboard asks questions like this: “Should the U.S. take in Syrian refugees?” The overwhelming answer scrawled by whatever visitors have found their way here: yes. (The Republican presidential candidates clearly haven't visited the Cell lately, either.)

In its exhibits, the Cell points out that over half the acts of terrorism have been committed against Muslims. “No ideology has a monopoly,” the Cell advises, and “domestic terrorism is just as much a threat as international.”

When local developer Larry Mizel first conceived of the Cell, the organizers met with think-tank experts and religious leaders to carefully consider the contents, to “balance civil liberties and safety,” recalls Pearlman. And while she says those contents are due for a “complete redo,” with more real-time displays, that balance will remain the focus.

While the Cell itself may be short on drop-in visitors, its programs are long on impact — not just in Colorado, but increasingly across the country, Pearlman continues. The Cell’s Community Awareness Campaign (CAP) has done training in Minnesota and Utah and worked with the staff on security for big public events in the wake of the Boston bombings. Here at home, the Cell works with school districts and Scout troops, even hosting Emergency Preparedness Merit Badge clinics; it offers monthly events like last week’s sold-out panel with Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center; M. Zudhi Jasser, founder/president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy; and Nader Hashemi, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver. None of them accused the Cell of Islamophobia.

“With initiatives like the CAP, and in conjunction with the public-safety community, the Cell stands ready to provide every citizen with the important tools they need to help them play an active role in their communities,” says Pearlman.

Even if they have to call 911 on a flip phone.

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