Valdosta Daily Times

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May 6, 2012

For 9/11 victims’ families, hearing another ordeal

NEW YORK — Moans, sighs and exclamations erupted Saturday as relatives of Sept. 11 victims watched four closed-circuit TV feeds from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, that showed the self-proclaimed mastermind of the attacks and co-defendants trying to slow their arraignment, a move that drew outbursts from viewers of “c’mon, are you kidding me?”

“It’s actually a joke, it feels ridiculous,” said Jim Riches, whose firefighter son, Jimmy, died at the World Trade Center. Riches watched the hearing from a movie theater at Fort Hamilton in New York City, one of four U.S. military bases where the arraignment was broadcast live for victims’ family members, survivors and emergency personnel who responded to the attacks.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the other defendants were arraigned on charges that include terrorism and murder, the first time in more than three years that they appeared in public. During the hearing, they generally refused to cooperate. At one point, one detainee leafed through a copy of The Economist magazine, then passed it to another. At other times, defendants knelt in prayer.

Like other family members, Riches expressed frustration about the proceedings.

“It’s been a mess for 11 years,” Riches said as he stood in the rain during a break in the proceedings and described the atmosphere inside. And after his first glimpse inside the military courtroom, he said, “It looks like it’s going to be a very long trial. ... They want what they want.”

Riches, himself a retired firefighter who worked digging up remains in the days after Sept. 11, said he carried with him dark memories of the days after the attacks, and he hoped that if convicted the five men would be executed.

“I saw what they did to our loved ones — crushed them to pieces,” he said.

About 60 people representing 30 families were in the theater at Fort Hamilton, where the military provided chaplains and grief counselors, Riches said. The other bases providing feeds were Fort Devens in Massachusetts, Joint Base McGuire Dix in New Jersey and Fort Meade in Maryland, the only one open to the public.

At Fort Hamilton, Lee Hanson said he became deeply angry as he watched the delays being caused by men he blames for the death of his son, daughter-in-law and 9/11’s youngest victim — his granddaughter, 2-year-old Christine Hanson. All were aboard United Flight 175, the second plane to crash into the twin towers.

“They praise Allah. I say, ‘Damn you!”’ said the silver-haired retiree from Eaton, Conn.

Several people who viewed the proceedings said they had little sympathy for the defendants’ complaints about their treatment, given the brutality of the deaths of the nearly 3,000 victims of the attacks. Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times and subjected to other measures that some have called torture.

“My brother was murdered in the cockpit of his airplane, and we will have to stand up for him,” said Debra Burlingame, who attended the viewing on behalf of her brother, Charles Burlingame, who piloted the jet that hijackers crashed into the Pentagon.

More than a decade after the attacks, she said, “we’re back in the game ... and they decided to play games.” She added: “They’re engaging in jihad in a courtroom.”

At Fort Meade, about 80 people watched the proceedings at a movie theater on the base, where “The Lorax” was being promoted on a sign outside. One section of the theater for victims’ families was sectioned off with screens, and signs asked that other spectators respect their privacy.

Once the proceedings began, the spectators in the public section laughed at times, including when a lawyer indicated Mohammed was likely not interested in using his headphones for a translator and again, briefly, when one of the defendants stood and the judge said that kind of behavior excited the guards. But the crowd was quiet when the man began to pray.

Only about half as many spectators returned after a midday recess. Very few people were planning to go to the viewing site in New Jersey, a base spokesman said, and a reporter was turned away at the gates to Fort Devens in Massachusetts.

Six victims’ families chosen by lottery traveled to Guantanamo to see the arraignment in person. Others ignored the viewing opportunity altogether. Alan Linton of Frederick, Md., who lost his son Alan Jr., an investment banker, at the World Trade Center, said he and his wife put their names in the lottery for the Cuba trip but weren’t interested in watching a video feed of the arraignment.

“That’s just not the same as being there to me,” Linton said. “Going to Fort Meade, it’s kind of like watching television.”

Whether they watched or not, relatives were frustrated that it’s taken so long to bring the Sept. 11 conspirators to justice.

The administration of President Barack Obama dropped earlier military-commission charges against them when it decided in 2009 to try them in federal court in New York. But Congress blocked the civilian trials amid opposition to bringing the defendants to U.S. soil, especially to a courthouse located blocks from the trade center site.

Mohammed and the others could get the death penalty if convicted in the attacks that sent hijacked airliners slamming into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania. The trial is probably at least a year away.

When it comes to justice, “it seems like it’s an afterthought,” said Eunice Hanson, 2-year-old Christine’s grandmother.

But New York police Detective Marc Nell said the viewing at Fort Hamilton more than a decade after 14 men in his unit were killed brought a sense of satisfaction, “a great feeling.”

“It was a feeling of pride, being proud knowing that those guys were (being) brought to justice,” he said.

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