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The Cell: Technology against terrorism

Melanie PearlmanPICTURE a typical peaceful afternoon on Denver’s 16th Street Mall.

The sun is shining, pedestrians are entering and leaving shops and eateries, shuttles are making their way up and down the shade-dappled thoroughfare.

And then . . .

Something happens . . .

It wouldn’t really be fair to reveal precisely what it was that happens on that fictional Denver afternoon, for the element of surprise is crucial to its effect.

Suffice to say that it is sudden, unexpected and violent — and the bucolic scene so artfully created in The Cell’s powerful video and audio diorama is instantly replaced with fear, confusion, pain and chaos.

Suffice to say that terrorism — and the death it leaves in its wake — have struck very, very close to home.

Fictionally, mind you.

But not as fictionally as we might hope.

We all know that terrorism has never struck downtown Denver. Yet even as we comfort ourselves with that knowledge, we also know that it could, and that if it did, it would probably greatly resemble the technologically conjured carnage so realistically depicted in a Cell presentation aptly named “Hitting Home.”

The most obvious and immediate takeaway reaction is to be afraid — if not to be very afraid — yet those who manage The Cell say that’s not the core message they want their viewers to go home with.

It’s more like: Be aware. Be very aware.

“Sometimes, terrorism seems so foreign and so far away,” says Melanie Pearlman, executive director of The Cell, an acronym of the Counterterrorism Education Learning Lab (recently renamed from the less clear “Center for Empowered Living and Learning”).

“We continue to bring it back to a personal experience and to say that you and I could be the victims of an attack. We don’t know when that will be.”

The Cell’s motto — “anyone, anytime, anywhere” — is another chilling reminder of our universal vulnerability in the post-9/11 age.

It means, Pearlman says, that “the threat of terrorism could be in Okalahoma City or it could be in New York” — or in Denver — “and that we have to be mindful of how this affects lives and what we can ultimately do about it.”

Designed to be “non-profit, non-partisan and objective,” The Cell claims to have only one overarching objective: “The only particular mission or statement, if  you will, that we continue to stand by is that global terrorism is not an option.”

PART museum, part state-of-the-art multi-media experience, part amusement park haunted house, The Cell is difficult to define.

Perhaps a part of its own acronymic title — “learning lab” — is about as close to a definition as one can get.

The program not only includes a physical facility, a 6,000 square foot space in the Daniel Libeskind-designed Museum Residences just a stone’s throw from the Denver Art Museum, but a speaking and programming arm which has already featured the likes of Gary Hart, Tom Ridge and other high-profile anti-terrorism speakers.

The Cell officially opened its doors in February, 2009, after a “soft launch” during the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver. It cost some $7 million to create the project, not counting the cost of the prime real estate which it inhabits.

Organized as a subsidiary of the Mizel Museum, The Cell was funded by and is the brainchild of Denver philanthropists Larry and Carol Mizel and their daughter Courtney who, Pearlman says, “really had a vision for what this was going to be.”

9/11 was the primary catalyst.

“The threat of terrorism is one of the most salient issues which our society is going to need to address, not only the Jewish community but the greater community.”

In The Cell’s physical facility, the mission is accomplished by a sensory experience using multiple tools to drive home the message.

The reception room begins the experience, with walls covered with the names of terror victims throughout the world and a display that illustrates how difficult it is even to provide a basic definition of terrorism.

In a nod to a similar method used by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, viewers may participate in something called “Shattered Lives” by taking a card that electronically tells the story of a real-life individual whose life was taken, or profoundly affected, by terrorists.

The card can be inserted into interactive terminals along the way, with each stop providing contextual information about the individual’s fate.

Subsequent portions of the exhibit cover an amazingly dense amount of data on terrorism, much of it delivered through interactive technology.

It covers a brief but copiously illustrated history of international terrorism, examinations of the scope and human toll of terror (illustrated with news accounts and documentary footage), the money trails that facilitate terror, the manipulation of children by terrorists, the tools of terrorism (with such attention-grabbing displays as realistic suicide bombers’ vests and the many objects that have been deployed to conceal explosives), myths and facts about terrorism, the impact of terror on media and democratic institutions, and the myriad ways which terror is constantly evolving and adapting.

Toward the end, a little sunshine is allowed to peer through the otherwise ominous clouds of the walk-through, with “voices of reason,” a display which examines governments, institutions and individuals which have had an impact on fighting terrorism.

At the very end, a brief film — “Recognizing the Intent of Terrorism,” narrated by former Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway and Denver television journalist Kim Christiansen — provides a local perspective on how everyday people can serve as society’s first-line watchdog.

Information is provided on what sorts of suspicious behavior to be on the lookout for and which authorities to contact should such behavior be observed.

The amazing quantity of information and material concentrated in the exhibit was gathered and analyzed by The Cell staff, in consultation with governmental agencies, think-tanks and academic experts.

“We had a project management team that actually went out and compiled all of this information,” Pearlman says. “Then we procured a writer and worked with interactive developers to develop the technology to convey this.”

Since terrorism never sits still, neither can those who manage The Cell. Just days after a deadly terrorist attack in Uganda, staffers were already compiling data and collecting footage to add to the exhibit.

“Unfortunately,” Pearlman says, “we constantly have to update this.”

BEFORE The Cell, Pearlman had been a primary force in organizing regional AIPAC activities. She met the Mizel family through that activism and a partnership of sorts was born.

Pearlman and Courtney Mizel worked long and hard to develop the intellectual basis and technological methods that form the foundation of The Cell.

“I have education and tangential knowledge on the issues but really didn’t have a lot of experience in launching an exhibit per se,” Pearlman says.

Since the whole idea of the project seems to be unique — at least at present, one won’t find a similar learning lab anywhere else — much of it was learned on the job.

“Which has been extraordinary,” she adds, mentioning the “foremost thought leaders” with whom she and Courtney worked in designing The Cell.

“One of the things you have to recognize are those things you don’t know and what talents you need to turn to in order to enhance it. You have to have a very thick skin on the one hand but be very interested in learning and opening your ears to what will be effective.”

By “thick skin,” Pearlman is referring to the undeniable fact that most of the material presented in The Cell is difficult, if not traumatic, to see and read.

“Look,” she acknowledges, “this is very difficult subject matter . . .  which people don’t necessarily want to take an hour out of their free time to come through.”

Many people have asked Pearlman why anyone would go to such lengths to create a presentation based on such awful material.

“But after we launched, people recognized the importance and significance of it. And we have so many champions now within the community, not only within community preparedness and law enforcement but teachers who continue to bring their classes here to the public who just walks in off the street, to dignitaries.”

The Cell also has the potential to be a prime target for controversy. Already, some have accused the program of engaging in fear-mongering, of encouraging Islamophobia with its repeated suggestions to observe and report suspicious activity, of advancing an aggressive and non-diplomatic approach to international relations.

“There are some leftwing groups who feel that this is a rightwing cabal,” Pearlman responds. “We’ve also gotten some criticism from the right, that this isn’t as strong as they would like to see it.

She insists that many who accept her invitations to walk through The Cell come away with a different view, confident that The Cell is striving for a balanced perspective.

A strictly non-partisan stance is crucial to The Cell’s credibility.

“We have not at all aligned ourselves with any advocacy, because we are not-for-profit and we want to continue to be an educational forum.

“We’re not trying to promote any one political agenda by bringing this content to the fore, but making the point that we as citizens need to understand this more substantively and need to figure out ways in which we can make a difference.”

Pearlman is asked whether The Cell, with its plethora of displays, interactive texts, videos and photographs, might actually be doing something which is the very opposite of its intention — inspiring would-be terrorists to act, or even giving them specific ideas on how to do so.

“We were very careful that everything that we have in particular exhibits is open source, meaning you can just as easily find it on the Internet,” she says.

“Unfortunately, it’s already readily available to them at their fingertips.”

Although initially funded and conceived by members of the Jewish community, The Cell does not call itself a “Jewish” organization, even though Jews have been disproportionate victims of international terrorism.

“Our Jewish heritage,” she says, “has given us a significant amount of sensitivity to what terrorism can do to a country, but it is not particular to the Jewish community.”

Some 10,000 people per year are purchasing the nominally-priced tickets for The Cell, Pearlman says.

A surprising number of those visitors are people who happen to be strolling by on their way to the art museum or library and are drawn in by curiosity, she says.

Many visitors are students, mainly from high schools and colleges. (The Cell recommends that viewers of the exhibit be at least 14 years old.)

In recent weeks, groups from the Colorado Technical Institute, Colorado Art Institute and area high schools and colleges have visited.

Pearlman sees the number of student visits increasing, especially since The Cell and DU have recently co-developed 27 lesson plans for high school juniors and seniors and college students.

Groups from the law enforcement and community preparedness (Red Cross, paramedics, fire departments, etc.) professions make up another significant constituency.

A surprising number of visitors to date have been political leaders, Pearlman adds. So far, more than 30 US Representatives and Senators have walked through the exhibit.

Both Sen. John Boehner and Sen. Harry Reed — the Senate minority and majority leaders, respectively — have passed through.

Both leaders, Pearlman says, were impressed by what they saw.

“Harry Reed said he would like to see this replicated in cities all around the country,” she adds. “They are so excited about what we’re doing in outreach to the community on this subject that they’re figuring out initiatives that we’re partnering together going forward.”

The federal government, she adds, is also looking into commissioning mini-movies like “Recognizing the Intent of Terrorism,” with narration and footage oriented to other metropolitan areas.

She hopes that none of this happens too fast. The Cell is itself a new institution and a new idea, and Pearlman wants the concept to be as good as it can be before other communities try to replicate it.

“We are walking before we run,” she says. “I think it’s very important to get it right.”

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IJN Assistant Editor | [email protected]

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