The scaffolding that hugs One Times Square, where the US Drug Enforcement Administration’s travelling exhibition Target America: Traffickers, Terrorists and You is on view until 31 January, brings an added sense of decay to the building. During the tech boom of the mid-1990s, and the accompanying regeneration of the neighbourhood, One Times Square housed a Warner Brothers store, which sold stuffed cartoon animals, T-shirts and other brand merchandise. Now, the upper wooden portions of the scaffolding are plastered with posters advertising the exhibition in white letters on a severe black background. Much has been made of the return of drugs to tourist-friendly Times Square: much less of the aptness of using a building once owned by a movie studio to conjure a new view of the war on terror.

A young security guard stopped me at the entrance to the museum and asked if I had any metal in my pockets. I told him that I had a lot of metal in my pockets. He asked me to take it out, and I explained that I couldn’t hold it all in my hands. As he pointed rather sternly to a wooden table behind me, I noticed the black wand in his hand, the kind airport screeners carry. Unloading my camera, iPod, headphones, wallet, keys and several other items on the table, and holding my arms out to my side to pass inspection, I wondered if this was part of the exhibition. If so, the security guard was performing his role with the seriousness of a method actor.

I assumed the exhibition would take the form suggested by its title: I would learn about the traffickers, then about the terrorists, and finally relate it all back to myself. I was surprised, then, that the first thing I saw was the front end of a wrecked green 1994 Ford Thunderbird, its windshield a web of cracked glass. The caption says that the man who drove this car is serving ten years for running over an Ohio woman and her three children. He was on a mixture of benzodiazepines, cocaine, marijuana and opiates at the time. Cans of Paco solvent, acetone, a bong, a skateboard, a posed photograph of a young woman, and a lavender plastic car of the sort a small child might ride down the driveway lie casually here and there on the platform surrounding the car. Is this a crime scene? A collage? I looked for an explanation but there isn’t one. The First Lady of Ohio and Ronk’s Towing are thanked for their help.

The visitor is then taken along a walkway between a full-scale Afghan heroin lab and a Colombian cocaine-processing plant. An audio recording plays from somewhere inside each, in that tricky way intended to make you feel you’re ‘really there’ – the way dinosaurs roar in natural history museums. Here, there is muffled foreign speech and other unplaceable noises that are only to be heard, presumably, in drug-processing laboratories.

Heroin production, the DEA tells us, has increased since ‘the liberation of Afghanistan in 2002’. I hadn’t expected such candour. It didn’t last. An accompanying note points out the failure of a crop exchange programme, blaming the Afghan farmers for a long tradition of growing opium.

Photographs of captured drug dealers mounted on foam core and explanations of money laundering – the stuff of a civics textbook – make up the next portion of the exhibition, blocking the museum’s centrepiece from view: a tall spire of wreckage, fenced in by plexiglass. Inside the plexi perimeter: rubble from the World Trade Center. There’s a cinderblock, some wires and several pairs of shoes covered in ash – an allusion, I assume, to one of the more famous images of the Holocaust. Here was the Terrorist section. Peter Jennings’s ABC news feed from 9/11 is piped in from somewhere under a stuffed animal, near some wires and a computer memory board. Yellow crime-scene tape wraps itself like a yellow ribbon around the top of the plexi fence, at waist height.

Upstairs is a child’s empty bedroom, empty I assume because drugs got him or mom or dad or maybe all three. In another mock-up, there is a bed with vials of cocaine on the bedside table, a 12-bore shotgun leaning at an angle against the mattress. Fluff has been pulled out of the pillow. Next: a motel room with a handgun on the bed and chemicals by the sink. Did you know that a motel room near you might be a meth lab? A wall commemorating celebrity addicts – Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison et al – and not so famous people who have fallen victim to drugs has an invitation from the museum to add photos or memorabilia of any friend or relative. There is one contribution. Relations of Kyndall Brooke Znidarsic, who overdosed at the age of 23, have taped a poem read at her funeral to the wall.

At the end, there are pamphlets on the DEA, a recruitment poster and a national guardsman in camouflage fatigues. Was it all a way to get me to sign up for duty? I rushed for the exit. Outside, two homeless people were sleeping, one sitting, one lying, under woollen blankets. Black trash bags rested alongside them.

Inside the exhibition I’d heard other visitors refer to it as ‘important’ and ‘educational’. Testimonials on the museum’s website offer another set of reviews. Terrence Satchell of Milford, Nebraska sees the exhibition as ‘true proof that the forces of evil must be actively combated, with or without the consent of the French.’ Zach Townsley of Ashland, Nebraska asks: ‘WHEY DID THE PEOPLE DESTROY THE BILDINGS?’

You might think that an exhibition of this kind would attempt to answer such a question. And this one does, in a way. The DEA has put together a nice artistic parallel to the policies and practices of the Bush administration. Scattered references – a car crash, a drug den, an Afghan poppy field, a cinderblock from Ground Zero – are collected together under one title. Corral enough bad stuff in the same place, and the dots will join themselves.

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