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Victims’ Rights and 9/11 State Violence

by KATHRYN FENSTER

A baseball-esk ID card, one man and an army of drones now determine the fate of a 17 year old girl in Yemen.  As the moral scale on determinations to label terrorists and to legitimate counter-terrorism tilts away from the Allegiance’s pledge to “liberty and justice for all”, September 11th, 2001 remains a current issue.

On the evening of September 10 2001 I was welcomed home by a voicemail from my best friend Zoe Falkenberg.  She proudly told me that she had ridden in a limo to the airport, I bet it was one of those normal airport shuttles misleading called limos.  Zoe and I were two of an inseparable trio, friends who had fought and loved as sisters since the early months of our lives, when we began sharing a nanny.  Zoe called from the airport; she was leaving the next morning for Australia with her little sister Dana, her dad Charlie Falkenberg, and her mom Leslie Whittington.  Mama Les was taking her sabbatical at a university there.

September 11, 2001 was a sunny Tuesday, picturesque clouds spread beautifully across a splendidly blue sky.  I was an 8 year old in Mrs. Kelly’s 4th grade class at University Park Elementary School in University Park, MD.  An administrator announced over the PA system that there would be an early dismissal, one thirty I think.  There was a funny atmosphere, I think there was a movie playing in our classroom, I was doing something for the teacher with colored computer paper.  Not the kind with bright colors, the sad kind that comes in creepy green and peculiar purple.  A lot of parents were picking their kids up early, mine didn’t.  After we were officially dismissed, my dad came to pick up a neighbor and me, her dad was still teaching.  My dad had a funny look on his face, a strained smile.   After arriving at my home, my neighbor and I began playing beanie babies in my top bunk.  At some point I must have speculated about the peculiarity of the day because my neighbor told me she had heard something about planes crashing in the sky.  The story line of our beanie baby game included planes crashing in the sky.  When my mom got home she talked to my dad, and then laid in an unusual way on the hammock in our back yard, I was watching through my window.

Once my neighbor’s parents picked her up I went down to join my family.  I sat down on the green and white striped self-standing hammock.  My parents were standing in front of me,my older brother was nearby.  I was cheery, after all I had gotten out of school early then spent an afternoon playing with a friend.  Then my parents told me that Zoe and her family were gone forever.  My parents must have said that their plane crashed too, but I only remember hearing that my Zoe F and her family were gone forever.

In the years following the attacks, the Falkenbergs have never been far from my mind, but I thought of the people themselves, not of the attack as a whole.  And then in May of last year, US troops killed Osama Bin Laden.  While my facebook newsfeed roared with patriotic statuses, I could not understand why I was not overwhelmed with pride in my country’s recent feat.  I found myself reading Osama Bin Laden’s obituary in the New York Times, trying to rationalize the experiences that lead him to project so much trauma into my own life.  Not long after, the faces of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Walid bin Attash, Ramzi bin al Shibh, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, and Mustafa Ahmed Adam al Hawsawi appeared on the public television screens.  The broadcast was to announce that the prime 9/11/01 suspects were to be tried in military tribunals at Guantánamo Bay.  I felt as if I were eight years old again.

It pains me to know that the US government is using the deaths of the Falkenbergs, and thousands of other innocents, to justify atrocious human rights violations.  Anthropological theory can help to explain how human rights violations against the 9/11/01 suspects, including torture, and refusal of due process, inherently violate the rights of both those victims murdered and those still living.  My specific usage of victim defines persons whose lives were profoundly affected by the attacks, mainly those involved in the attacks and their loved ones.  The methods used for interrogation of the 9/11/01 suspects, and the decision to try the suspects in military commissions instead of criminal courts violate the rights of the victims both dead and alive and forces victims into accomplices in the state’s violence.

During their detention, Guantánamo prisoners including the 9/11/01 suspects have been subjected to violations against their basic human rights, including protection from torture.  Interrogators use knowledge of Islamic religious beliefs and values to embarrass and mutilate the detainees’ spiritual rights.  These coercion tactics include female interrogators rubbing red dye that signifies menstrual blood on prisoners to make them dirty, preventing the men’s ability to pray. Waterboarding is another form of torture practiced at Guantánamo, entailing drowning simulation to produce a panic response in the victim.  Mohammed is one of three prisoners who former CIA director General Michael Hayden has publicly recognized as having been subjected to the now explicitly illegal, waterboarding .

The alleged use of these torture  tactics is to discover whether or not the suspects were involved in the 9/11/01 attacks,  to learn more about the attacks, and to prevent future acts of terror, all while seeking justice for the victims.  However, in April of 2011 Attorney General Eric Holder stated that the justice department had developed a strong case to seek the death penalty for the five suspects up for trial Evidence retrieved from torture can be used in military commissions; coerced evidence is not legitimate in criminal courts.  Thus, because Holder stated that the plaintiff legal team was prepared to prosecute Mohammed, bin Attash, bin al Shibh, Abdul Aziz Ali, and al Hawsawi in federal courts, we can assume that there is a sufficient amount of evidence for their persecution that was not obtained through torture.  If there is sufficient legitimate evidence to prosecute the suspects then the Guantánamo torture is unnecessary for a successful judicial trial, making the human rights abuses against these men superfluous for conventional justice.

In addition to violating the rights of the attack suspects, the human rights abuses against the suspects inherently violate the rights of the 9/11/01 victims to dignity post-mortem.  One specific atrocity was committed against Mohammad al-Quahtani, the sixth 9/11/01 suspect who has been denied trial, and will instead be held indefinitely at Guantánamo. The interrogator taped a picture of a 9/11/01 victim to his pants.  The use of this image violates the rights of the dead victims to peace post mortem.   But more than that, by using a victim’s image as a tool to harm the suspects, interrogators force the victims’ bodies into tools of aggression.

By invoking the deaths and images of 9/11/01 victims to abuse the suspects, the military interrogators reverse the victim/perpetrator roles.  The dead do not have agency, but by using the deaths of thousands of innocents to justify these human rights abuses, the state forces the victims into the role of accomplice for the state’s violence against Mohammed, bin Attash,  bin al Shibh, Abdul Aziz Ali, al Hawsawi, and al-Quahtani.   The state mutilates the dead victims’ bodies into tools of aggression, forcing the victims into the guise of perpetrator, and allowing the attack suspects to become victims.  Therefore by torturing the 9/11/01 suspects in the name of justice for those killed on September 11th 2001, the state distorts the victims’ positions as innocents murdered on a tragic day, into allies for terrorism.

This violation of the rights of the victims murdered on 9/11/01 has also yielded a violation of the rights of those victims still alive.  The violation of dead victim’s rights leaves one with the question: who is the aggressor, the men whose motivations for and true involvement in the terrorist attacks remain unknown, or the state that consciously links victimized innocents with torture?  This confusion problematizes the legitimacy of the state because, while the presence of the state remains guaranteed, the state’s threat mars its position as a place of justice.  The threat of the state prevents living victims from understanding the state as a space for justice.  And if we cannot find justice within the bounds of our state, then what can we hope for in a military tribunal at Guantánamo, a place defined by its occupation as outside the binds of law?

Military commissions contain provisions that deny fair trials, and silence defendants, and in doing so, violate their human rights.  For example, the allowance of evidence coerced during cruel and inhumane conditions denies the suspects of their right to due process.   Also, both the judge and the jury are military appointed, thus an unbiased hearing is not possible, denying the suspects of even a chance of their right to due process.  In addition, military commissions bar civilians and press from large portions of the trials.  By excluding civilians and press from the trials, the military commissions prevent a witness to controversial trial proceedings.  The exclusion of civilians from certain trial proceedings also prevents living victims from learning information about the terror attacks that have so much influenced their lives, an important part of healing.  Moreover,  at least bin al Shibh and al Hawsawi have submitted requests to represent themselves, however their appointed military council have thus far prevented this occurrence on the grounds of mental incompetency.  By denying the 9/11/01 suspects the opportunity to speak on their own behalf, the military tribunals refuse to allow a trial in which any sort of justice is possible.  The military commissions are denying justice in their silencing of the suspects because the commissions abjure the defendants of an opportunity to fight for themselves and for their own lives, in essence denying the suspects of their right to life.  Some might say that these state-labeled terrorists do not deserve the chance to defend their own life.  Nevertheless, denying the 9/11/01 suspects a criminal court trial violates both the rights of the suspects to a fair trial and of the living victims to the information that military commissions refuse.

The images and the information that the government has released of and about Mohammed, bin Attash, bin al Shibh, Abdul Aziz Ali, and al Hawsawi has forced the general public to other these men.   The images of the suspects are their Guantánamo mug shots, taken after years of torture.  The result is that the representation of the 9/11/01 suspects broadcast to the public is one of men who the public cannot relate too, and so instead we distance ourselves from these men and other them into the unquestionable group of 9/11 terrorists.

Othering prevents true justice because it refuses the opportunity to question the state’s actions and in doing so forces living victims into accomplices in the state’s violence. By denying the 9/11/01 victims the opportunity to gain information about each of these men’s involvement in the attacks, through both military and suspect testimonies, military commissions abjure living victims of the opportunity to gain the information about both the attacks and the 9/11/01 suspects that is necessary to individualize the suspects and their crimes.  While Mohammed, bin Attash, bin al Shibh, Abdul Aziz Ali, and al Hawsawi remain abstractly as the 9/11 terror suspects, we do not feel an obligation to recognize their individual rights, therefore we do not question the way in which the state treats them.  The denial of information forces silence and in doing so impels us to reflect the position that silence assumes.  One of accompaniment with the government as it commits human rights violations in the name of our dead.  Thus, not only does the denial of transparency inherent in military commissions violate the rights of the 9/11/01 suspects, this abjuration also refuses living victims of their right to information, and in doing so forces us into the role of accomplice to the government’s human rights violations.

Therefore, in violating the rights of Mohammed, bin Attash, bin al Shibh, Abdul Aziz Ali, and al Hawsawi, the state also violates the rights of 9/11/01 victims both living and dead. The state forces dead victims into accomplice roles in violence.  The state withholds information from living victims, causing their othering of the suspects and subsequent position of silence regarding the suspects’ human rights, ultimately forcing living victims to be complicit in the state’s human rights violations.  The National Defense Authorization Act gives the president the discretionary power to order military detention of suspected terrorists.  Obama signed the NDAA into law on New Years Eve of 2011.  This law allows us all to be arbitrarily declared as terrorist suspects. We can no longer allow our government to determine the legacy of September 11th 2001.

Kathryn Fenster is originally from Prince Georges County, MD. She is an anthropology major at Grinnell College, Grinnell Iowa. She can be reached at fensterk@grinnell.edu.

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