How American Torture Prevented 9/11 Victims From Getting Justice

At Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, an Iraqi prisoner was placed in this position by two U.S. service members, who said they took the picture "as a joke," on November 4, 2003. The prisoner was told if he moved he would be electrocuted. Private Ivan Frederick II is seen at the right, adjusting his camera. U.S. Department of Defense

The national debate over torture is back. President-elect Donald Trump has repeatedly stated his intentions to bring back waterboarding and a "hell of a lot worse," claiming that the use of torture guarantees security and ensures justice for acts of terror.

But as someone who lost a family member on 9/11, I have a different perspective: The U.S. government's decision to use torture directly prevented my family from getting the justice we deserve. Here's how.

When the first plane hit the World Trade Center's North Tower on September 11, 2001, my sister Laura was on the 106th floor. In the weeks following her death, I expected my government to find out who was responsible for the attacks and bring them to justice.

I wanted everything about the hijackers investigated in transparent, public proceedings. I wanted their accomplices and financial supporters identified, apprehended and tried in open courts.

But that's not what happened. Instead of pursuing justice for 9/11 through lawful investigations and fair trials in federal courts, the U.S. government chose to engage in torture.

Eventually, we began to learn about the CIA's global network of "black sites," where the U.S. government secretly held and often tortured people. Waterboarding was the most widely used method, but there were others: sodomy and sexual humiliation, mock executions, beatings and sensory deprivation.

At least one man died after the cruel treatment, and many continue to suffer physical and psychological injury.

The U.S. government then set up a kangaroo court system of military commissions at the Guantánamo Bay detention camp. The system is plagued with problems. There are profound tensions between the requirements of a fair trial, including discovery, attorney-client privilege and hearing evidence in open court, and the government's claims that "national security" interests require secrecy.

The government's use of torture—and efforts to keep information about that torture from being publically detailed—hangs over every single step of the proceedings. It's been 15 years, and still the 9/11 "trial" drags on with no resolution in sight.

Still, I watch the hearings. Sometimes I am the only one in the closed-circuit viewing room. As I see proceedings in the makeshift courtroom encounter delay upon delay, inevitably returning to the legal complications posed by torture, I can't help but wonder how different things would be if the U.S. government had done the right thing years ago.

Related: Donald Trump's troubling take on inflicting torture

What if my country had prioritized truth, justice and human rights and refused to commit torture, indefinite detention or unfair trial?

Federal courts have prosecuted more than 400 terrorism-related cases in the past 15 years. Those courts might have delivered justice for my sister's death by now if the 9/11 case had not been moved to a military commission.

Powerful people in my government did not share my belief that a fair and open trial of the 9/11 suspects was a national priority. If they had, they never would have tortured the accused.

Recently, proponents of torture have gained traction by rewriting history to suggest that tolerance for torture equals toughness. Polling suggests that an alarmingly high percentage of Americans view torture as an option and not an unequivocally unlawful and immoral practice.

But the decision to engage in torture after 9/11 had profound consequences not for just the moral fabric of my country but for me and my family, and the families of all 9/11 victims.

Returning to torture would have far-reaching consequences that put us all at risk, but it is not too late to ensure we commit to what is morally and legally right.

President Barack Obama this week reaffirmed the ban on torture. He should underscore that point by finishing the job and shuttering Guantánamo before leaving office.

The incoming administration—from President-elect Trump, to his Cabinet nominees, to every adviser—must unequivocally reject the use of torture. My family's right to truth and justice, as well as my country's values, is at stake.

Terry Rockefeller is an Amnesty International USA board member.

Read more from

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- Science shows that torture doesn't work
- Obama can stop Trump's return to torture by releasing abuse files

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