What is an American meant to feel when confronting mangled shards of the jets that struck the World Trade Center? Or a Ku Klux Klan robe and hood sized for a child? Or a gun identical to the one that assassinated President McKinley?
Shock? Depression? Nausea? Guilt?
"I'm not sure what we want," said Rodney Kite-Powell, curator of history at the Tampa Bay History Center. "But I'm sure what we'll certainly get is surprise. People will be surprised how long there have been groups inside this country and outside this country who wish to do people harm."
The History Center's new exhibit, "Spies, Traitors and Saboteurs: Fear and Freedom in America" turns a spyglass to some of the darkest periods in American history, from the burning of our nation's capital by the British in 1814, to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, to the terror attacks in Oklahoma City and on 9/11. On loan from the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., it opens Saturday and runs through June 24.
The exhibit's assortment of historical relics is modest, but the extent to which it covers bigotry, terror and paranoia in America is impressive (and perhaps a little disturbing), which makes it a fascinating visit for anyone with a morbid curiosity about violence in America.
Even war history buffs will likely learn a thing or two. A timeline of American history at the entrance details more than 150 acts of "hate," "sabotage," "terrorism" and the like, many of which seemingly have been forgotten by history. For example: Even Kite-Powell, who is a historian by trade, was not familiar with a 1916 attack in New York Harbor, in which German saboteurs blew up a massive cache of American ammunition bound for use by the Allies in World War I.
Presented with somber gravitas, the Ku Klux Klan display will no doubt stir the most reaction. The focal point is a display case containing one robe from 1925 and two replicas — one of them child-sized — but other artifacts, including Klan manuals, badges and sheet music, are equally fascinating, if eerie. Did you know the Klan used to leave "calling cards," similar to business cards, to intimidate minorities and potential victims? The cards even list a business address and phone number; that's how brazen the Klan used to be.
The Red Scare of the '50s and protest violence of the '70s are well represented, but the glimpses at modern extremism may be the most unsettling. Images of hate groups' websites and maps of their activity in America are coupled with stark portraits of fringe extremists, separatists and militiamen. One display features an image of a white suburban house that fades to reveal a diorama of an amateur bombmaker's den. All of it makes you wonder just how much hate, sabotage and terrorism is still bubbling just out of plain view in America.
"Being able to make a connection to modern times through the use of history will make things that much more real for people," said Kite-Powell.
Real, and frightening. Maybe that's the emotion we're searching for.