Campus & Community

Beyond terrorism’s front page news:

5 min read

Lamont Library exhibit features fatwas, prescient warnings, and government documents

Behind the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the war in Afghanistan, the worldwide manhunt for al Qaeda, and the looming war in Iraq lies a history of terrorism both broader and deeper than one gets from reading the front pages and listening to the news headlines.

A new exhibit at Harvard’s Lamont Library tells that deeper story through an unusual exhibit of government documents, including reports, statistics, Congressional testimony, and a fatwa from terrorist mastermind Osama bin Ladin.

Located in Lamont’s lower level outside the Government Documents Collection, the exhibit traces terrorism’s roots, both philosophical and practical, and attempts to get the viewer beyond the “they did this to us” thinking that organizers say has marked the American reaction to the Sept. 11 attacks.

The exhibit features many documents that have been the subjects of news stories in recent years. Among them are the fatwa declaring holy war against America, a prescient report predicting a plane packed with explosives could be crashed into the Pentagon, and Congressional testimony warning that the U.S.’s system of employing underpaid, poorly trained airline security screeners was a recipe for disaster.

“There is great concern among the flying public that the security screening program in the nation’s airports is inadequate,” said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas in March 2000. Johnson went on to decry “high turnover and low salary,” “inadequate training,” and “low morale” among screeners. “We cannot wait until disaster strikes before we act.”

In an effort to provide context, the exhibit features snippets from the broader terror struggle in recent decades, including the strife in Northern Ireland, the Middle East, South Africa, and El Salvador, where death squads institutionalized violence in that nation between 1980 and 1983. Along with those snippets are displays intended to provoke thinking about the difference between a freedom fighter and a terrorist, and why relatively small terrorist-scale events are often condemned while acts like the World War II firebombing of Dresden and the atomic bomb use against Hiroshima and Nagasaki are often considered justified.

The exhibit was put together by Pam Hays and Vida Margaitis, both document and reference librarians in the Government Documents Collection. Hays said the exhibit is intended not only to get people thinking about their own views of terrorism, it’s also intended to highlight the rich resources to be found among government documents.

“This points out the history of terrorism worldwide, as well as the depths of Harvard’s collection,” Hays said.

Harvard College Library’s Librarian for the Social Sciences Diane Garner said the exhibit is particularly important because so many people aren’t aware of what can be found among government documents.

“It’s obvious that government documents are kind of a mystery or a gray area for many people,” Garner said.

As a government document repository, the Government Documents Collection is open to the general public, so the exhibit can be viewed by those both within and without the Harvard community. Though the exhibit does contain photos, cartoons, graphs, and maps, it is document heavy, so those interested in plumbing its depths should plan to do more reading than one would for an exhibit of a more visual medium.

Those that do will be taken from the 1936 League of Nations’ Committee for the International Repression of Terrorism to U.S. Congressional testimony discussing steps taken after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Along the way, the exhibit probes the emergence of the United States as a prime target of terror. One declassified 1948 document discusses the fact that the U.S. has half the world’s wealth and just 6.3 percent of its population.

“We cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment,” the document reads. “Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships that will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our nation’s security.”

“It’s not that they envy our democracy,” Margaitis sums up, “it’s that they don’t have a piece of the pie.”

The exhibit attempts to not just add perspective outside the nation’s boundaries, but also within Harvard’s walls, featuring a panel on Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski. Kaczynski is a Harvard graduate suspected of a string of bombings across the nation who pled guilty in 1998 to bombings in California and New Jersey that killed three and injured two.

“It’s not ‘those people out there,’ it’s us in here too,” Hays said.

The exhibit attempts to cover an enormous amount of ground, and Hays and Margaitis say the selection process was quite difficult, as well as an education for themselves.

For those wishing to delve deeper into the trove of documents on the subject, each part of the exhibit has a citation through which the curious can embark on a search of their own, either solo or with the help of documents librarians like Margaitis and Hays, who are familiar with the collections.

“Even with this [exhibit], we’ve just scratched the surface,” Hays said.