The Torture Report: Reflections by Colleen Kelly

Torture was never okay

The first time I saw Khalid Sheik Mohammed I was at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. Mohammed — the alleged mastermind of 9/11 — was behind triple-paned glass and surrounded by muscular military police. He looked more like an old, frail street punk in army fatigues than the monster I had made him out to be. If I had been alone with Mohammed in the months after Sept. 11, I would have tried to pummel his face bloody.

My brother, Bill Kelly Jr., was killed on Sept. 11 at the World Trade Center. Bill didn’t work in lower Manhattan; he was attending a one-day conference in the Twin Towers. Despite, and perhaps because of Bill’s murder, I still believe in the rule of law. I count on my fellow Americans to believe in the law as well. We are a nation founded on the idea that kings don’t make the rules. We, the people, do.

Just as the law protected me from my own angry impulses such as pummeling, I count on the law to disrupt cycles of revenge in others as well.

Prior to imprisonment at Guantanamo, Khalid Sheik Mohammed and others were held at CIA black sites. They were tortured. There is no other word for what happened to these men. Freezing temperatures, mock executions, waterboarding and rectal “feeding” are not enhanced interrogation techniques. They are torture techniques.

I expect American law to constrain the behavior of our servicemembers and CIA personnel. I also expect the law to protect prisoners, including accused terrorists. Here’s why. Torture taints all that it touches: the bodies of those tortured; the psyche of the torturers; the conscience of a nation.

And because we as Americans never really reckoned with the torture committed in our names after Sept. 11, it is now torture, not murder, on trial at Guantanamo Bay. Torture has complicated the 9/11 case in a variety of ways, but primarily because it has called into question the validity of vital evidence — confessions.

The five men on trial for 9/11 crimes were brought from CIA black sites to Guantanamo. These men had been interrogated and tortured for years at secret locations around the world. President George W. Bush made a calculated decision to then bring them to Guantanamo — not to American soil, but to property rented by American tax dollars. In January 2007, the United States government took a new tack and brought in FBI “clean teams” to question the five men allegedly involved in planning 9/11, including Mohammed. We don’t yet know exactly what the defendants said to the FBI, only that the prosecution in the 9/11 case plans to use the FBI interviews as their main evidence against the five defendants.

FBI questioning did not involve torture. CIA interrogations did. Three judges have each ruled differently on whether these defendant statements will be admissible at trial. So torture, in addition to being ineffective, now risks the successful prosecution of the 9/11 accused.

I understand rage as a physical reaction to hurt and injury. Feelings are what make us human. Wisely, America’s founders recognized our humanity and enshrined a prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment in the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution. And throughout our country’s history, legislators have written laws ensuring that legal avenues to justice are not only more persuasive, but ultimately more effective.

The law prevented me from harming the man I believe killed my brother. The Bush administration’s legal teams could have, and should have, prevented the torture at interrogation sites as well. CIA black site personnel were operating under a looming sense of failure in preventing the first attacks, and the notion that a second wave of attacks were coming. This shame and fear created a toxic mix of emotional poison that needed a powerful antidote in American jurisprudence. Instead, government lawyers gave a green light for abhorrent behavior. The rest, as they say, is history, and in the words of President Obama, “we tortured some folks.”

The Sept. 11 terror attacks happened 18 years ago. Mohammed and four co-conspirators were arraigned in 2012, and due to endless pre-trial motions, the 9/11 trial has yet to begin. I’m past the urge to pummel now. Reason outweighed, then outlasted, rage. I wish the lawyers who wrote the opinions allowing for torture had believed in the rule of law as much as I still do.

Kelly is a family nurse practitioner in the Bronx and co-founder of September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows.


Filed in: Colleen Kelly, Guantanamo, Guantanamo & Military Commissions, Restoring Rule of Law, Rule of Law: Guantanamo and Civil Liberties, Torture and Challenges to Human Rights, Trauma and Healing, Voices of Peaceful Tomorrows

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