Getting to a secret prison is difficult, seeking justice from it feels hopeless

It has now been more than 20 years since I lost my father on Sept. 11, 2001. I have lived without him and his love for the majority of my life. I had hoped that I would eventually find closure or peace, but it feels as if my loss, my pain, is prolonged by the years of injustice that continue to follow from those attacks.

I am now experiencing another 20th anniversary — except this one represents the persistent absence of morality at a nearly unreachable place, the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center.

I spent this 9/11 anniversary prepping to go to the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center for my first time. I have since been twice, and on Jan. 11, 2022, the 20th anniversary of the opening of the facility, I was supposed to be sitting in the viewing gallery, observing another round of pre-trial hearings for the 9/11-accused; however, the hearings were cancelled due to the COVID pandemic. Although out of extreme precaution for individuals’ health, this represents another road block, another delay, still with no trial date in sight.

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The travel process to be an observer entails lengthy preparation months prior, including rounds of paperwork, multiple COVID tests, and long travel days. During the pandemic, we’ve arrived on base before sunrise, to test for COVID, clear security, and wait… for hours. While you wait, you converse with the other people flying with you in your respective groups. The non-government organization representatives and legal students often are paired together. We fly commercially to the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. Once on base, we are given an escort who is tasked with bringing us to court, the grocery store, dinner, and often to the beach on days when court is closed. You retain most of your freedoms; however, navigating around, taking tours, and other activities must be cleared. There is a strange balance between being an adult tasked with observing a military trial and being escorted like a kid at camp.

The obstacles and delays are not just a question of logistics. They stem from the abandonment of rule of law and the lack of a commitment to human rights, with torture at the center.

The military commissions, the prison as an operations center, and the specific selection of what can and can’t be discussed is all part of what Carol Rosenberg calls “a peculiar pick-and-choose transparency.” This system creates obstacles that not only hinder the progression of a potential trial but also the potential of closure. I never imagined I would sit in the observation gallery watching the 9/11 accused and struggle with feelings of guilt for the torture done on our behalf. I sat there and felt a sadness — for myself, a sadness for the system and those it wronged. 

The Biden administration has made little effort to close the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center.

It’s time to reflect and consider what the next 20 years should look like.

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Do we want to continue utilizing a place void of rule of law and morality? How many more anniversaries will go by where we will see indefinite detention without trial prolonged?

Serious action must be taken to right the wrongs of the last 20 years. My organization, September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, strongly believes that a path forward could involve pre-trial agreements, or plea deals. This would mean the defendants would plead guilty and in exchange, the death penalty would be taken off the table. This could allow family members to provide questions for the defendants about the 9/11 attacks. So much has been left unanswered as we remain stuck year after year in the cycle of oral arguments over admissibility of evidence tainted by torture or protected by the state secrets privilege. Without plea deals, there is no end in sight.

Any sense of justice for family members feels just as unreachable as the detention center.

Although viewpoints may differ from others, it is time to join together to advocate for plea deals, a trial date, and to stop letting state secrets get in the way. Twenty years later, it is time for a change; it is time to close the prison.

Elizabeth Miller is a Rule of Law Fellow for September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows and a City of Port Jervis councilperson.