When the National September 11 Memorial & Museum opens Thursday, we will finally have a national institution dedicated to exploring the effects of the tragic events of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The impact of that day on U.S. legal institutions, however, remains a work in progress. The federal court system has proven remarkably adept at handling the hundreds of criminal terrorism cases filed since Sept. 11, 2001. But the polarized politics of terrorism has left Washington paralyzed when it comes to handling the cases of dozens of indefinite detainees still imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
In New York last week, the U.S. government rested its case against the one-eyed, hook-limbed Sheikh Abu Hamza al Masri, on trial in federal court on terrorism charges. For weeks spectators were treated to a string of government informants, including confessed terrorism supporters, who seemed to have no qualms about taking the witness stand and incriminating the fiery preacher the government says inspired and directed lethal acts against Americans. In April, another extremist cleric, Suleiman Abu Ghaith, was convicted based on similar evidence.
In Washington, however, with the National Defense Authorization Act now pending in Congress, lawmakers and policy experts are again debating what to do about the men the United States has indefinitely detained for alleged terrorist activity at Guantanamo Bay. The question is growing more urgent as Washington prepares to withdraw its combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year — officially ending the war there. That arguably ends the president’s authority to detain prisoners under the laws of war as well.
President Barack Obama reiterated in January his desire to close the notorious Guantanamo prison by the end of this year. Even among those who agree it should close, a surprising number of lawmakers and policy analysts seem to believe that may require creating a new indefinite detention scheme for suspected terrorists here in the United States.