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‘Spies’ exhibit in Skokie recounts the fear among us

The screen thgreets visitors Chicago-arepremiere Spies Traitors Saboteurs: Fear Freedom AmericcreatiInternational Spy Museum Illinois Holocaust Museum EducatiCenter Skokie. | Joel

The screen that greets visitors to the Chicago-area premiere of Spies, Traitors, and Saboteurs: Fear and Freedom in America, a creation of the International Spy Museum, at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie. | Joel Lerner~Sun-Times Media

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Spies, Traitors
and Saboteurs:
Fear and Freedom
in America

When: Through Sunday

Where: Illinois Holocaust Museum, 9603 Woods, Skokie

Admission: $12 (discounts for seniors, children and active military)

Info: (847) 967-4823;

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Updated: February 1, 2013 6:04AM

With the CIA hogging the spotlight these days — think “Homeland” and the Petraeus scandal — it seems only right to make time for the exhibition “Spies, Traitors and Saboteurs” at the Illinois Holocaust Museum.

As sexy as the name sounds, calling up images of Bond-style subterfuge and Aston Martins with ejector seats, the show’s mission is deadly serious. This fact becomes clear upon arrival. The surrounding context of the Holocaust museum underlines the show’s theme, which is the difficulty of balancing unquestioning loyalty to one’s government, civil rights and national security.

The focus of the exhibition, organized by the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., is fear and freedom in America. The show suggests that tolerance, one of the great luxuries of a free society, is often the first thing to be sacrificed for the sake of security.

“Spies, Traitors and Saboteurs” offers up both sides of the story of sedition in America. We see an interview with Bernardine Dohrn, of the radical Weather Underground, talking about her participation in a raid on FBI headquarters that exposed criminal activities there. A few steps away is an exhibit devoted to Oklahoma City gunman Timothy McVeigh and a re-creation of a right-wing militiaman’s hiding space, equipped not only with semi-automatic weapons but also a Bible, a copy of the Constitution and a survivalist cookbook.

The curation of this show is provocative and sly. We’ve come to expect, in these days of partisan politics, when issues are seen as black and white, or red and blue, to be told what to think. The sneaky success of this show is that it does not. Rather, it leaves us to put the pieces together.

This is a text-heavy show, relying on the viewer to do much of the work. The material is fascinating, once you get into it, but some of the most moving displays are purely visual.

The grisly black-and-white photos of spectators standing around at a Ku Klux Klan lynching, as if they’re at a neighborhood barbecue, are haunting. What hits home even harder are the hand-sewn KKK robes and hoods on display, including one that is child-sized. The slightly uneven stitching around the eyeholes brought it to life for me. I pictured a woman at her kitchen table, sewing these garments for her family, as if she were dong the household mending, or making Halloween costumes.

One particularly startling — and funny — artifact here is an anti-communist propaganda film from the 1950s, starring “Dragnet” stalwart Jack Webb lecturing us on the dangers of complacency. It shows the nightmare of an American family man who dreams that his wife and kids have all decamped to the Communist Party. It’s amusing, at first. What absurd paranoia, we think. But it’s also sad, showing how limiting fear can be.

Ultimately it makes us ask — in this era of ever-heightened security concerns, when we must remove our shoes before we board airplanes — who are our enemies, exactly?

And: What price for safety?

Margaret Hawkins is a local free-lance writer and art critic.

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