Observing 9/11 at Guantanamo Bay

A Eugene lawyer defending an accused militant leader at Gitmo reflects on terrorism, torture and justice

By Rita Radostitz

For the second year in a row, I spent the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. 

I woke early to send greetings to family and friends as they celebrate the new year in Ethiopia, a place where my daughters’ extended family lives, and where their calendar shows — as it has for millennia — Sept. 11 as the first day of the year. 

Most Americans were surprised to learn last week that a trial date has been set for the trial of the men accused of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. 

Some were surprised to learn that the case has not yet gone to trial. Others were perhaps surprised to learn that despite the passing of almost two decades without a trial, the government still intends to seek the death penalty, thus ensuring many more years of litigation — and many more hundreds of thousands of tax dollars spent — before any possible resolution of the war crime charges will be final. 

Since 2004, when I first went to Ethiopia and adopted my daughters, this has been a day of conflicting emotions — of hope and joy for the Ethiopian new year, and sadness in remembrance of all the losses from the destruction in New York, in Washington and in the field in Pennsylvania. 

Since 2016 it has been triply conflicting as I am now one of the attorneys representing the man accused of being the architect of that very destruction.

I think about the stories that most Americans tell of 9/11 — of where they were, what they felt, who they knew — always starting on a bright and sunny fall day a year after the dawn of the new millennium. Of the people who died in the planes and the buildings. And the people who died trying to save them. Those, too, are my stories.

As I read the annual media stories about that day, I recognize that the American story rarely includes what America did before 2001 to destroy the Ummah, the Muslim homeland. 

Even more rarely included is what we did after 9/11 to torture Muslim men, women and children. Some know of the torture of the men. Few understand that we also tortured their children. Few know that we, too, practiced the fine art of “disappearing” people. Kidnapping them. Holding them incommunicado. Placing them in small boxes with bugs crawling across their skin. Stripping them naked to humiliate them. Hanging them from hooks in the ceiling for hours and days. 

And then there are the drownings; attempted and real. The cover up. The euphemisms created to hide the atrocities: “rendition” (kidnapping) and “enhanced interrogation” (torture) and “water-boarding” (intentional drowning) and “rectal rehydration” (anal rape.) Always using “them” to other-ize the human beings on whom we were practicing torture. 

And it was exactly that, practice; we didn’t know how to best torture people. But we set out to learn. And these actions led to years, decades, of delay of a trial for those who were tortured, and who now have been charged with war crimes.

Another major cause of delay was the failed attempt by the Bush Administration to create an American extra-territorial Star Chamber-like system of quasi-military justice at Guantanamo. That system was, of course, struck down by the Supreme Court. 

It took another five years before Congress and the Obama administration were able to create a revamped military commissions system so that finally, eight years after capture, an arraignment could be held. And in the eight years since that arraignment, the delays continue. The government fought for years — and on some issues, continues to fight — to hide evidence about the torture. 

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, with the strong advocacy of Sen. Ron Wyden, was finally able to research and report about what the CIA called the “Rendition, Detention and Interrogation” program — what should, instead, be called the “disappearance and torture” program.  

But the full report is classified and, except for an executive summary, remains unavailable to both the public and the defense in the military commissions trial. A film about the Senate committee’s work titled The Report will be released later this fall. Americans will be shocked to learn what was done in their name and with their tax dollars.

On this anniversary of the day that changed so many lives, I cross paths with victims and victims’ family members who lost loved ones on 9/11 as we walk into the hearing room. This week, we will begin arguments about issues both trifling and grand: first, a motion about whether we should be provided a manual used by FBI agents, and then legal arguments on whether statements by the defendants could have been made voluntarily given the torture they endured. 

Victims and their family members will watch from a gallery where, after a 40-second delay, they’ll hear the arguments of the lawyers and, sometimes, the comments of the accused. And they must wonder, as we all must wonder: Almost two decades later, is this really American justice?

After the hearings, I will perhaps cook    doro wat or messer and shiro — and dine with my colleagues here on this land stolen from a sovereign power, the island prison where my emotions whiplash between celebration and sorrow.

Attorney Rita Radostitz, a Eugene native, works for the Military Commissions Defense Organization representing Khalid Shaikh Mohammad, named in the 9/11 Commission Report as the principal architect of the on Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.