As hard as it is to believe we are approaching the 18th anniversary of 9/11. That event was for me, and many others I know, the ‘where were you when..’ time in our lives (interestingly, for my older brothers, born in 1949 and 1952, theirs was the JFK assassination: I was not quite 3 at that time and hence it was not a signature moment). I was at CSIS when the planes flew into the towers in New York and the Pentagon and that terrorist attack changed my professional and post-professional trajectories.
After all this time it looks as if the trial for five of those believed to have planned the operation may begin in 2021, including the alleged mastermind, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. Perhaps fittingly that will mark two decades post-incident, although the actual start date could be January 11 with the selection of a military jury at Camp Justice, the war court compound at the Guantanamo Navy base in Cuba.
If this goes ahead it will of course carry a lot of closure for the US and the families of the victims. 2, 976 people died that day and each name is listed on the charge sheet. The accused all face the death penalty if found guilty. This has been a long time in the making.
But what if it all goes wrong?
As much as I doubt that any jury would return non-guilty verdicts in this case there are several aspects that are problematic. The very fact that Gitmo is the site of a trial raises all kinds of potential challenges. Whatever you think of this camp there is no question that it is of questionable legality to hold hundreds of men there without charge for decades. In addition, there are the conditions the ‘suspects’ were held in: clad in orange jump suits in cages and subject to harsh interrogation without legal representation. Furthermore there are the accusations of torture and the very way in which many of these men were found and transported to Cuba. Finally, the fact that almost 20 years have passed will have an impact on witnesses, sources and evidence.
On the other hand someone has to pay for the enormity of 9/11. The sheer horror of the crime demands a culprit who has to be punished. Nothing less than death for the terrorists will be acceptable to most Americans I would imagine.
Still, it is worth pointing out that the response to 9/11, primarily by the US but also by others, has been far from optimal. The 2003 invasion of Iraq came out of 9/11 and we all know how that ended: with the creation of Islamic State. President Bush immediately declared a ‘war on terrorism’ which led to a very ill-chosen way to frame the serious, but NOT existential, threat that this form of violent extremism poses. Finally, it is not beyond reasonable to posit that our collective response to 9/11 gave birth to worse Islamophobia and growing anti-immigrant populism, and even perhaps a stronger right wing extremism in the West.
In the end I do hope that a fair trial ensues, or at least as fair as possible under the circumstances. I hope that those found responsible get what they deserve. I hope Americans can feel some sense of relief. But I also hope that our reaction to 9/11 gives us pause and helps us do counter terrorism better in the future. Terrorism, after all, is not going away and we need to adjust how we deal with it.