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9/11 families deserve a verdict, not a plea deal — and America does, too

As we approach the 9/11 anniversary, President Biden has rejected a proposal by the five men accused of conspiracy to carry out the attack, according to a report in The New York Times. The proposal would mean the accused plead guilty and spend the rest of their lives in jail in return for “certain accommodations, including assurance they would not serve their sentences in solitary confinement and could instead continue to eat and pray communally — as they do now as detainees at Guantanamo Bay.” In short, a plea deal.

September 11 is forever a somber, surreal, searing anniversary. It is a day often occurring with implausibly sunny skies, reminiscent of that dreadful Tuesday when America was shaken to its core.

Four terrorist attacks were carried out that day, by an Islamic extremist group that hijacked commercial airplanes and crashed them into buildings — among them the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Nearly 3,000 people from 93 countries were killed.

Each year we mark the day with the reading of names, the bowing of heads, the sharing of stories and a grief that only a nation attacked in such a fashion can fathom. Biden will mark the anniversary this year at a ceremony in Alaska.

This September 11 is made even more complex by the debate over how the suspected conspirator of that awful terrorist attack and his fellow defendants will be punished.

In reporting first delivered by AP News, the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) and the Pentagon have tried to prepare family members for the reality that the 9/11 case may never get to trial, due in part to complex legal problems — some of which relate to the CIA’s use of torture in its handling of the defendants.

Those who lost loved ones on 9/11 were notified weeks ago that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four others being held at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba may not face the death penalty because of a plea deal under consideration.

Having the case end without a clear trial verdict is too painful for some to imagine. “Closure” is never truly possible, even with a verdict, but without one, there will be unanswered questions and unexpressed emotions rather than full accountability.

For some families, a plea deal might mean that older living relatives of victims might never see resolution before they die. For others, holding out for a trial is more meaningful.

Congress will also weigh in on the plea deal, especially because it relates to foreign policy.

The role of Saudi Arabia, for instance, has continued to dog the 9/11 investigation and prompt survivors to question U.S. policy toward the kingdom. Absent a final reckoning, that open wound may never heal.

Even recently, when the Professional Golf Association (PGA) announced a deal with Saudi Arabia, victims of 9/11 came forth to protest the relationship. The Saudis deny any involvement in the al Qaeda plot; lawsuits and investigations continue to this day.

September 11 should not be handled like any other case where a plea agreement is invoked.

This attack ushered in a global war of terror and changed the course of American foreign policy. It was the biggest foreign attack on this country in our history. It left indelible fear in our citizenry.

The response to the attack led to massive changes in government architecture, like the creation of the Department of Homeland Security in 2003 and an enormous expansion of law and intelligence directed at preventing another 9/11.

Our entire system of air travel was altered to secure passengers through restrictions and a terrorist watch list.

Muslims in America suffered terribly in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, with retribution, violence, surveillance and Islamophobia that persists today.

And, of course, the invasion of Afghanistan, a month after the September 11 attacks, was the start of a long and costly military engagement that ended with a bloody evacuation of Americans and Afghanis who supported our efforts to prevent the Taliban from taking over, which they did.

At a time when the rule of law in America is under scrutiny amid political challenges to the election of 2020, this might not be the moment to have one of the most defining events in recent U.S. history escape legal resolution. For the sake of history alone, it would be useful to have an open trial and decision that renders the record clear.

Memorials, museums and tributes are important national expressions. But the trauma of 9/11 is unlike other tragedies. For the families and the country, we must insist that legal closure be allowed. Whether the sentence is the death penalty or multiple life terms, there cannot be ambiguity.

Tara D. Sonenshine is the Edward R. Murrow Professor of Public Diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University

Tags 9/11 Afghanistan Guantánamo Bay Joe Biden Khalid Sheikh Mohammed Saudi Arabia September 11 attacks Terrorism