The National Security and Human Rights Campaign at the Open Society Foundations supports organizations that are working to protect civil liberties in post-9/11 America and to promote national security policies that respect human rights. On the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, contributing Campaign grantees offer reflections on their work in this series 9/11 at 10.
September 11, 2001. We all remember where we were when the crystal blue sky of a bright day was seared with hatred, fire, suffering, and death. This tenth anniversary is a day to grieve for the lost and to comfort those whose lives were shattered. September 11 was an attack against the American family and the human family, because the innocent victims came from many nations and many faiths.
On this day of remembrance, we also reflect on whether we have taken the right steps in response to the horrific terrorism of September 11. Terrorism is a real threat to our nation and to all who cherish peace and security. Our firefighters and emergency workers responded with courage and sacrifice to the attacks of September 11. Our soldiers have bravely taken the fight to the enemies who attacked us that day. Our military, intelligence and law enforcement officials work tirelessly to prevent another attack.
While these responses show national strength of character, our character is also drawn by learning from mistakes to make wise decisions in the future. One of the hardest issues to examine is how our nation treats national security detainees. Since September 11, our country has taken tens of thousands of people into custody. Some have been held in Iraq and Afghanistan, some taken to Guantánamo Bay. Some were held secretly by intelligence forces. Some have been held for many years.
Clearly, some detainees were and are dangerous and should be brought to justice. There have also, however, been a range of reports and allegations that some are innocent and should not have been, and should not be, denied freedom. Claims that detainees were subjected to physical and psychological mistreatment have raised serious questions that in many respects remain unanswered.
All of this has been the subject of heated debate. Often this debate happens in response to an event that touches our deepest emotions about September 11. Too often, this debate evolves into a fragmented, polarized, partisan argument about a subject that should be considered carefully, holistically, and with close regard to the facts.
We believe there is a better approach.
We are co-chairs of a Task Force on Detainee Treatment sponsored by The Constitution Project, a bipartisan nonprofit organization that promotes the rule of law. Our Task Force is studying the treatment of detainees during the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations. Our study is not partisan and our Task Force includes Republicans and Democrats. Our Task Force members have experience as members of Congress, generals, ambassadors, doctors, judges, lawyers, and professors of law and ethics.
Together, our goal is to consider this issue as broadly and deeply as possible. We intend to review detention at Guantánamo Bay, in Iraq, and Afghanistan, and in sites throughout the world where detainees were taken via U.S. rendition efforts. We will research and present the law that governs detainee treatment and summarize medical analyses of detention conditions. Our staff includes lawyers and a journalist with investigative experience, with additional volunteer support from law firms. The staff and volunteers will conduct independent research and investigation as well as summarize existing information.
We plan to prepare a report to inform the public and policymakers about how detainees have been treated and make recommendations for the future. While there have been other studies, we hope to add to them in a number of significant ways. We will work to summarize the great body of information that is available and identify gaps. Our report will run to the present because how we are treating detainees now is as important as how we treated them before. Finally, our examination will benefit from the diversity of our various perspectives.
We approach this effort with humility because of the enormous amount of information on the subject, the complexity of legal and factual issues, and the fact that much about detainee treatment is classified and unknown. We appreciate that finding the truth on a subject this challenging can take many years. If we cannot provide the answers, we hope to pose the right questions.
As one of us described our task, “there are those who say this is too tough, let’s forget the past and move forward, but if you forget the lessons of history you are bound to repeat them. This historical record is critically important for our nation as we look to the future.”
We are encouraged that the history of our country shows that the courage to take a hard look at issues of right and wrong lies at the heart of our strength. As our Task Force colleague, Dr. Azizah al-Hibri, said, “there are lofty ideals in the United States. There is a struggle to live up to the Constitution and in recent decades we have tried to live up to it better. Our work is to put together this wealth of information that has been scattered. . . and when we put it together we put a mirror up to our country so we can look and learn.”
We hope to take an unbiased, fresh, honest look at this hard subject, and we mark this day with a commitment to a study that protects the security, legality, and morality of our nation.