In Taíno, an indigenous language of the Caribbean islands, Guantánamo means “land between the rivers.” It is the name of a province in southeast Cuba and its capital city. It is also the name of the oldest overseas US naval base, established in 1903. Nearly 100 years later, in January 2002, the base became the site of an infamous detention camp. The word has come to represent a generation of violence against Muslims, of fear-driven reactionary policies, of crimes against humanity in the name of national security, of exceptionalism, and of lawlessness.
The word Guantánamo is now synonymous with terror, torture, and detention. A mere mention of the word elicits a near-ubiquitous shudder, or a groan. It evokes images of blindfolded, handcuffed men in orange jumpsuits, people labeled “the worst of the worst,” suicide bombers and radical Islamic fundamentalism, prison bars and military personnel, the American flag.
The realization that Guantánamo exists physically, not only as a metaphor or imagination, struck me relatively recently. Until last year, my mental image of the place was analogous to my conception of the Bermuda Triangle; bizarre, amorphous, not quite real but with grave consequences. Last summer, I visited Guantànamo and learned that it is, in fact, very real. Its remote location and shroud of secrecy do not occlude its physical presence.
After a minute or two, Ramzi bin al-Shibh noticed us, looked directly at us, smiled, and waved, as if to say, I see you staring. We made eye contact, then I quickly walked away. What could he possibly be thinking in this moment? How did he end up here, sitting in a courtroom in Guantánamo Bay, shortly before returning to his cell? How did I end up here, on the other side of the Plexiglas, craning my neck to stare?
Early on in my trip, I learned about the wildlife at Guantánamo: the island is populated with hutias, known as banana rats, and Cuban rock iguanas, an exceptionally large species of lizard. Soldiers and civilians on the island discuss these species with a sense of pride. At the island’s gift shop, plush stuffed hutias and rock iguanas line the shelves, nestled between baseball caps bearing the name “Guantánamo Bay” and coffee mugs that read “Straight Outta Gitmo.”
I visited the naval base-slash-detention center to observe pre-trial hearings for the case against five men accused of plotting the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon as part of the government-sponsored Victim Witness Assistance Program (VWAP).
Six months prior to my visit, I read an op-ed titled “Guantánamo Is Delaying Justice for 9/11 Families” and discovered Peaceful Tomorrows, a nonprofit peace advocacy organization comprised of individuals who lost loved ones on September 11. Intrigued, I sent the article to my sister, Leila, and within weeks, we met with members of the organization. Phyllis and Orlando lost their son in the attacks; within weeks, half-delirious from shock and grief, they wrote a letter to then-President Bush urging him to abstain from war. In 2012, Phyllis traveled to Guantánamo with VWAP. Leila and I contacted the program coordinators and began our quest to see the place for ourselves, to begin to grasp what has been done in our father’s name.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Walid bin Attash, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Ammar al-Baluchi, and Mustafa Ahmad al Hawsawi have been charged with 2,973 individual accounts of murder, for each victim of the attacks, along with a multitude of other crimes: attacking civilians, intentionally causing serious bodily injury, murder in violation of the law of war, destruction of property in violation of the law of war, hijacking an aircraft, terrorism, and providing material support for terrorism. My father, Brian, was a victim; on September 11, 2001, he went to his office on the 105th floor of the North Tower and died. His remains were never found and I do not know how, exactly, he perished. Instantaneously, perhaps, as the first plane collided with the building; or, slowly, as smoky toxic fumes seeped through the lower floors, suffocating.
I am lucky to have been spared the sight and scent of the towers in flames. When I visited the base, the prosecutors in the case continually discussed, in graphic detail, the suffering that occurred on that day. In court, prosecutors repeated the number 2,973 again and again. As if the scope of the accused’s crimes somehow negated the government’s own transgressions, its neglect of rule of law.
At a group dinner, a man who lost his wife casually asked one of the VWAP coordinators what she thought of torture––an issue that is central to defense arguments but is largely denied by prosecutors. “Waterboarding isn’t torture!” she shouted, face red from rage and whiskey. “These men haven’t seen torture! Torture is your wife, standing at the top of the World Trade Center, deciding whether to jump or to get burned alive! That’s torture!” I am of the belief that both can be defined as torture. I am also deeply offended by the use of pain to justify violence.
Restorative justice, according to the Centre for Justice and Reconciliation, “repairs the harm caused by crime.” It is best accomplished, the theory stipulates, through cooperation with all stakeholders. This community-driven approach emphasizes collaborative—rather than punitive—solutions to harm, both within and outside of the criminal justice system. The goal is transformation: by recognizing and acknowledging harm that has been inflicted, communities can work toward understanding the underlying issues that prompted the perpetrator to act, build bridges, and heal collectively.
I do not know exactly how this concept can be applied to violent, irreversible crimes. I do know, however, that violence cannot be the answer to violence, and that the deaths of these rapidly aging men will not undo the death of my father or other victims. Yet, ten years after the 2008 arraignment of the alleged perpetrators, government prosecutors remain mired in the pursuit of the death penalty.
Evidence of guilt is compelling; the attorneys tasked with defending the so-called “9/11 five” do not deny that their clients were involved in the meticulously orchestrated and catastrophically-enacted events of that day. Yet, of the 779 Muslim men who were or are detained in Guantánamo, only nine have been charged with any crimes, and none have been tried. Hundreds of former detainees, all innocent, have been released; after enduring years of torture and captivity, many live in exile, unable to return to their countries of origin, traumatized. At least six men have committed suicide while in captivity, and three others have died of other causes. Forty-one detainees remain in Guantánamo, including many who have been cleared for release but remain stalled by bureaucratic procedural stagnancy and apathy. Some were teenagers when they were kidnapped; eighteen years later, they approach middle age, graying with the stress of torture and indefinite detention.
The location of the prison in which the remaining detainees are held is top secret. One defense team filed a motion to see the prison several years ago. Once the motion was passed, military personnel blindfolded attorneys and drove them in circles around the base on the way to the prison. That way, they couldn’t trace the geography or maintain a coherent mental map. The five accused are also blindfolded on their way to and from court each day that the hearings are held.
When I visited Guantánamo, I traveled with nearly everyone involved in the case, other than the defendants, to observe or participate in the legal proceedings. Teams of prosecutors and defense attorneys and their respective staff members boarded the plane, making small talk, as they do before each round of pre-trial hearings, which occur every couple of months. This process began in 2008; ten years and hundreds of court motions later, the pre-trial hearings have become routine. Thirty rounds of proceedings have taken place, largely outside of public discourse and media attention.
The flight was oddly normal; the captain made announcements over the loudspeaker about the weather and predictions about turbulence, and flight attendants demonstrated emergency protocol. Upon arrival, other victim family members and I were given a thick “Welcome to GTMO” information packet and a summary of the motions that were to be discussed in this round of hearings. We were handed the naval base’s monthly newsletter, titled “GTMO Life” with the subheading “Morale, Welfare, & Recreation.” It lists events and announcements, mostly for the thousands of military personnel stationed at the base and their families, ranging from Sunday night bingo to dodgeball tournaments for military personnel and their families.
Our chaperones, coordinators of VWAP employed by the Chief Prosecutor, also handed us a copy of the accused’s manifesto—a statement, released under dubious circumstances, claiming responsibility for the attacks. Then they warned us: media representatives and defense attorneys will try to talk to you, and you are not obligated. They also repeated, many times, that the defense teams were “solely responsible” for their respective clients—the men alleged to have murdered our loved ones. Despite these warnings, I wanted to talk to the defense attorneys, the people closest to the detainees.
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The makeshift legal complex—unironically named “Camp Justice”—is set up to prevent any accidental or intentional leaks of classified information; the main section of the room is where the judge, the five defendants and their respective teams of lawyers, and the multiple teams of prosecutors. Dozens of Joint Task Force (JTF) soldiers line the room. (By my estimation, there are at least three to four soldier guards per detainee, in addition to others who stand by the door.) There is a transparent wall, made up of three thick layers of soundproof Plexiglas, between the courtroom and the observation room. Family members, NGO observers, members of the media, and a few legal personnel who have not received security clearance sit behind this wall. Family members of military personnel, perhaps bored of the island’s greasy bowling alley and monotonous kickball tournaments, are also eligible to watch the proceedings. We can watch the hearings as they are happening, peering through the glass, but we hear a recording of the proceedings with a 40-second time delay. If information is released that the convening authority posits as a threat to national security, a button is pushed to stop the recording.
We entered Camp Justice early on Monday morning. After passing through three separate rounds of metal detectors and military guards checking our identification badges, we were given the opportunity to approach the glass partition and take a closer look at the defendants before the judge appeared and the proceedings began. My sister and I stood at the glass, silently staring at the men accused of enacting the attacks that killed our father and many others.
Neither of us have clear memories of the day—Leila was three, and I was five—so we experienced September 11 differently from the other members of our group, each one at least forty years older. My generation has no memory of a world in which the attacks did not happen. We grew up with this reality, with its consequences, with its weight. Although I feel disconnected from the events of that day, and have only fragments of recollections, this historic event has indelibly shaped my life.
At the end of the day, after court was adjourned and everyone began to leave the courtroom, my sister and I walked back to the side of the Plexiglas with the best view of the defendants. We stared, noticing Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s bright red beard, studying the wrinkles in his face. We watched as two of the defendants spoke to their lawyers, smiling and shaking hands. They were alive: living, breathing. After a minute or two, Ramzi bin al-Shibh noticed us, looked directly at us, smiled, and waved, as if to say, I see you staring. We made eye contact, then I quickly walked away.
"Although I feel disconnected from the events of that day, and have only fragments of recollections, this historic event has indelibly shaped my life."
What could he possibly be thinking in this moment? How did he end up here, sitting in a courtroom in Guantánamo Bay, shortly before returning to his cell? How did I end up here, on the other side of the Plexiglas, craning my neck to stare?
In a meeting with defense attorneys, I learned that Mr. Mohammed—as the primary defendant is called—once arranged for flowers to be sent to a lawyer on his team when she fell ill. I learned that he prepares food for his lawyers when they visit his cell; once, he made cheese by storing yogurt in an old sock and waiting for it to ferment. Apparently, when he hears news of Palestinian children killed by Israeli military forces, Mr. Mohammed cries.
Political rhetoric and public discourse paint terrorists as non-human, as aliens. Another family member on my trip, who had been to a previous round of hearings, informed me on the plane ride to the base: “these guys don’t have two heads.” At least three of the five accused are admitted mass murderers, yet they are all people. It is a challenge to reconcile the humanity of people who fail to recognize the humanity of their victims. It is a challenge to acknowledge the gravity of the government’s absence of humanity for its own victims.
There is no such thing as War on Terror because War is Terror. I first read this phrase later in the summer, after returning to the mainland US, on a sticker in a hippy gift shop in New York, resting on a dusty shelf between recycled-paper notebooks and fair-trade-handmade jewelry. The timing was appropriate; the phrase captures much of what I struggled to comprehend in Guantánamo. This trial, if it ever takes place, is an opportunity for the country to hold itself accountable for its actions in the wake of a massive attack on US soil. Perhaps that is what restorative justice looks like: using tragedy to prevent more tragedy, using violence to prevent more violence. This case can be used to understand the events of September 11, the factors leading up to the attacks, and the government’s consequential responses.
"My outrage coexists with understanding. In Guantánamo, I felt the penetrating shock of the attacks and the unequivocal fear they provoked. I abhor the reactionary violence inflicted on innocent men who were tortured and held captive in Guantánamo, and I mourn the hundreds of thousands of lives lost in wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, soldiers and civilian."
In December 2012, the Senate Intelligence Committee published a report detailing the use of torture in the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program. This 6,000-page document revealed the brutality of so-called “enhanced interrogation” techniques. I gleaned details from the report during my trip; the issue of torture dominated the hearings and it was a major topic of discussion. Treatment of defendants is part of the reason the case is dragging along so slowly: the credibility of the accused's statements have been tainted by their treatment in US custody. In discussions with attorneys, I learned that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (self-proclaimed architect of the attacks) claims to have suffered brain damage as a result of oxygen deprivation during the 183 times he was waterboarded. Mustafa al-Hawsawi, accused of transferring money to the 19 hijackers, suffers from rectal prolapse as a result of forceful so-called medical examinations; as a result, he can hardly sit without agonizing pain.
My outrage coexists with understanding. In Guantánamo, I felt the penetrating shock of the attacks and the unequivocal fear they provoked. I abhor the reactionary violence inflicted on innocent men who were tortured and held captive in Guantánamo, and I mourn the hundreds of thousands of lives lost in wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, soldiers and civilian.
According to VWAP coordinators, many family members of victims would give anything to see these men killed. Many would be thrilled to personally execute the accused. Often, pain motivates this desire for justice.
A woman who lost her brother in the attacks and shares many of my beliefs speculated that those whose life trajectory changed insurmountably after the attacks—for instance, someone who lost a spouse in the infancy of a marriage, or a child who never met a parent—demand the death penalty. Some feel it is unfair for the people who killed their loved ones to go on living, decades after so many lives were cut short. Others want the alleged perpetrators to feel the same pain they feel; the throbbing heartache, the hollowness of loss.
"The consequences of the tragedy of 9/11 have multiplied across continents. Guantánamo Bay is reflective of a false imperviousness, an illusion of immunity to the rest of the world."
This crime is different from most: it was a suicide mission, and the 19 people who carried out the attacks—who murdered the pilots, hijacked the planes, and flew directly into the towers—are dead. The five defendants in this case may be culpable to an extent, but their activities were removed from the events of the day. Moreover, the fatalities of the attacks were inadvertent; no members of Al Qaeda had animosity towards the victims as individuals. Rather, the group targeted symbols of American greed, impurity, and imperialism; icons of their perceived threat to their religion and way of life.
The death of these five men, regardless of their involvement in the attacks, would not bring back my father or any other victims. A capital sentence would be a symbol of martyrdom for the perpetrators of these attacks and an empty victory for government prosecutors. But there is also no chance that these five men will ever be released. They will either die before the trial happens or they will be sentenced to remain in detention in Guantánamo Bay for life. A plea deal could end legal proceedings that cost millions of dollars a year, but that deal was negotiated and quickly abandoned.
The consequences of the tragedy of 9/11 have multiplied across continents. Guantánamo Bay is reflective of a false imperviousness, an illusion of immunity to the rest of the world. Victims such as my father deserve justice—justice that has yet to be served—but propagating pain cannot be the answer.