End America's Guantanamo Bay chapter for detainees and for 9/11 families like mine

Bill Tammeus, Opinion contributor
·5 min read

This new year brings more frustration over the prisoners — euphemistically called detainees — still housed at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and more pain for 9/11 families, including mine, as we prepare to mark the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks.

It’s long past time to bring the alleged 9/11 conspirators to trial and either release the others still held there or move them to U.S. prisons and try them in U.S. courts. All that should be high on President Joe Biden’s agenda.

So where are we with Gitmo?

Forty prisoners remain there, among them five men accused of planning and supporting the 9/11 attacks. Those five are being tried before a military commission, but so far the start of the trial has been repeatedly delayed — often for acceptable reasons, including pandemic considerations. The rules of the proceedings generally have reflected basic American values about innocence and guilt, but the delays have become enormously frustrating, especially for 9/11 families monitoring all this.

Every update is a stab in the heart

Periodically, I get email from the director of the Victim Witness Assistance Program of the Office of the Chief Prosecutor of Military Commissions, updating me and other 9/11 family members on the progress — or lack of it — of the pre-trial business in the cases of Mohamed Atta, Abdul Aziz al Omari, Satam al Suqami, Wail al Shehri and Waleed al Shehri.

Every email is a stab in the heart reminding me that Karleton D. B. Fyfe, the 31-year-old son of one of my sisters, was a passenger on American Flight 11, the first plane to crash into the World Trade Center. Karleton’s murder traumatized my extended family in endless ways. My new book tells that story and also explores the question of why some people get sucked into monochromatic thinking that leads to violence and what we can do to oppose such extremism.

Karleton Fyfe and his uncle, Bill Tammeus, right, at a 1986 family reunion in Atlantic Beach, N.C.
Karleton Fyfe and his uncle, Bill Tammeus, right, at a 1986 family reunion in Atlantic Beach, N.C.

The long story of how essential American values have been ignored or brutalized at Gitmo is a national embarrassment. Worse, it simply provides additional fodder for the religious and political radicals around the world who love to hate America.

The George W. Bush administration’s decision to go into Afghanistan to wipe out al-Qaida training camps was justifiable as self-defense. But even before Bush and his staff lost focus in Afghanistan and started an utterly unjustifiable war in Iraq, America faced the question of what to do with captured terrorists.

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The United States had offered bounties for suspected terrorists in Afghanistan and, starting in 2002, America hauled about 800 people to Gitmo, some of whom came into U.S. custody because of those bounties.

Under President Barack Obama — who wanted to close the prison but failed — the number of prisoners was reduced in various ways. But here we are in the 20th year after 9/11 still dealing with all this, and seeing our government not handle it well.

U.S. Military's Prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba on Jan. 26, 2017.
U.S. Military's Prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba on Jan. 26, 2017.

By calling these prisoners “detainees,” the United States is trying to get around the Geneva Conventions, which say it’s illegal to retain people indefinitely without a trial. The “detainee” designation is a thinly veiled sham, and Americans should demand that the new Biden administration do better by seeking a speedy resolution of all cases against prisoners held at Gitmo. That's the purpose of a webinar on Wednesday called "Guantanamo: Still Locked Up." "Soon, we expect President Biden to commit to the U.S. government closing Guantanamo," Rev. Ron Stief, executive director of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, said in an invitation to supporters.

Routine grief and special pain of 9/11

The whole Gitmo process has been torturous not only for many of the prisoners but also for 9/11 families. We first had to bury our dead. Well, not first. First we had to recover their remains, if any. In the end, my family buried a single seven-inch piece of Karleton’s thigh bone, found several years after he perished.

Then we had to live through not just routine grief but an especially lacerating kind of grief at birthdays, weddings, funerals, baptisms, and — maybe worst of all — annual observances of the 9/11 anniversary. As I quote my sister Barbara in my new book:

“You just can’t get this son of ours buried and move on as fast as one might otherwise in a death from a different source. . .It does get better and then you turn on the TV and watch Karleton’s plane crash into the towers again. They don’t tell you that they are going to show that goddamned clip again, they just do it, and then it puts you back a peg or seven.”

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And it’s not just our family. It’s thousands, not even counting families shattered by other terrorist attacks and mass murders since 9/11.

The pain of losing funny, sweet, smart and loving Karleton, who left behind a pregnant wife and a toddler son, will never go away. But surely our government can find a way to stop the additional pain inflicted every time Gitmo makes the news. Doing that also might help us recover some of our basic national values.

Bill Tammeus is a former columnist for The Kansas City Star and past president of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. His book, "Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety," was published last week. Follow him on Twitter: @BillTammeus

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Joe Biden must end Guantanamo chapter for prisoners and 9/11 families