GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba — At the memorial ceremonies for the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, there is a constant reminder that the men alleged to be responsible for plotting the attacks remain detained on the island, with no trial yet in sight.
The raising of the American flag took place Saturday morning at Bulkeley Hall, the naval headquarters at Guantanamo, as the rising sun brought a hot day on the island. The color ceremony was attended by dozens of uniformed officers, off-duty military personnel, island visitors, 9/11 victim family members, and the naval station commander, Capt. Samuel White. Before the flag was raised, the group assembled for pictures, and White helped move the 9/11 victim family members to the front of the crowd, saying, “What makes this a special event is you being here — otherwise, it would just be another formation.”
As the National Anthem played on speaker systems, the American flag was raised alongside a green and white striped New York Police Department and white and red New York Fire Department flag by uniformed sailors and two New York City firefighters — Coast Guard reservists stationed at Guantanamo. One firefighter told the Washington Examiner, “It’s an honor to be able to raise our department’s flag here.” The other said simply, “It’s an emotional time.”
Shortly after, a 9/11 memorial ceremony was held inside Gitmo’s chapel. Two Guantanamo Bay fire trucks sat just outside the entrance. At the back of the chapel, pieces of the World Trade Center were on display.
Attendees are seen at the color ceremony in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, on the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. (Jerry Dunleavy / Washington Examiner)
A four-person Navy color guard marched in the American flag and a Navy flag, and a live rendition of the national anthem was played on the saxophone. Video displays inside the chapel showed the iconic photo of the three New York City firefighters raising an American flag in the rubble at ground zero on 9/11, and a video scrolled through the names of nearly 3,000 people who were killed that day.
“To the families of those who perished, your loss is what drives us in our mission today — and every day,” a service member running the service said.
Navy Lt. Cmdr. Chaplain Andrew Colvin gave an opening prayer, saying, “Look upon us mercifully, Lord, as we remember this day and honor victims and heroes of 9/11 — both the dead and the living.”
White, the naval base commander, said officials did not want to create the Cuban detention center 20 years ago, but officials "have a mission that we did not seek."
“We didn’t want to establish a detention facility. This is nothing that anybody woke up on Sept. 10th and decided to do. … When somebody elected to do something to attack innocent people on 9/11/2001, that day was not picked by the victims' families, by the U.S. Navy, by the U.S. Army, by DOD — it was picked by them,” White said, adding naval installation officials "remember 9/11 every day."
The sister of New York Fire Department Capt. William “Billy” Burke, who was last seen trying to help paraplegic and wheelchair-bound Ed Beyea and his friend Abe Zelmanowitz evacuate the North Tower before he died as the building collapsed, said her brother would downplay his role in saving his men’s lives.
Two fire trucks are stationed in front of a chapel in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. (Jerry Dunleavy / Washington Examiner)
“If he were here, what he would say is what he did that day was nothing special,” Elizabeth Berry said at the chapel Saturday as the video display scrolled through pictures of her brother, adding later, “If Billy were here, he would thank you for your service, and he would be really honored.”
Berry, a clinical psychologist, and her husband, Paul Berry, a retired attorney, attended this week’s pretrial hearings at the Cuban island war court, and in a Friday interview, the couple strongly defended the U.S. government’s efforts to try the five men accused of conspiring and facilitating the attacks.
“When you hear his story, it’s going to sound very courageous, and, you know, it’s iconic, but it’s not unique — there were a lot of heroes that day," she added.
The 20th anniversary of 9/11, which comes as the Taliban rules Afghanistan once again, prompted approximately 100 people, including victims' families, prosecution, defense teams, military members, judicial staff, journalists, and others, to travel to Cuba on a charter plane from Andrews Air Force Base last Saturday.
People stand during a 9/11 memorial ceremony in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, on Saturday. (Jerry Dunleavy / Washington Examiner)
In the two decades since 19 al Qaeda terrorists hijacked and crashed several planes, killing nearly 3,000 people, the five men believed to be responsible for the planning and execution of the plot have yet to stand trial. The key unresolved question is the admissibility of confessions obtained by the FBI after the CIA subjected them to “enhanced interrogation techniques” — called “torture” by some.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, dubbed “KSM" and described as “the principal architect of the 9/11 attacks” in the 9/11 Commission Report, was a close ally of Osama bin Laden and is being tried alongside four co-defendants.
The defense lawyers in the 9/11 proceedings have been vocal about the case, but the prosecution team leading the effort hasn’t really spoken to the press in years, limiting its remarks to the courtroom. Thus, at Guantanamo Bay, getting the word out in favor of the military commissions often falls to the 9/11 victims' family members.
“As this anniversary approached, I thought about where I might want to be, and the first place I thought about was here. … I’d like to thank the prosecution team for working tirelessly to get justice for the families,” Berry said.
Ciaran Canavan, his wife Jean, and their 19-year-old son, Liam (who was not yet born on 9/11), also attended this week’s 9/11 proceedings. Ciaran Canavan’s deceased brother, Sean, was a carpenter working his second day on the 98th floor of the World Trade Center's South Tower.
Liam Canavan, who says he plans to join the Marines, said the suspected terrorists' detention at the facility is "the one thing that brings peace to my family."
Liam Canavan holds a folded American flag in front of the chapel at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, after a 9/11 memorial was held Saturday on the 20th anniversary of the attacks. (Jerry Dunleavy / Washington Examiner)
“Because of these attacks, I never met my uncle Sean, who would’ve been my godfather had I been born before 9/11,” Canavan said. “The one thing that brings peace to my family is knowing that the men responsible for such pain are locked up here at Guantanamo Bay, and will never inflict pain again — as a direct result of all the hard work that happens here. … For the 20th anniversary, it was really special to be here and watch the court proceedings in person and feel it getting closer to justice.”
“We also owe a huge thank you to the prosecution team for their unrelenting fight to achieve justice for every 9/11 victim,” he added.
White presented the flags flown at Gitmo to Elizabeth and Paul Berry, to Ciaran and Jean Canavan, and to Liam Canavan, also giving him his commander pin.
“I guess every family just kind of wants to tell their personal story," Canavan said outside the chapel. "I was born after 9/11. So, it's really more my parents’ story of my uncle Sean, who was killed, like thousands of others. And I guess my point is just that they can't be forgotten — and everyone's story needs to be heard.”
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Original Author: Jerry Dunleavy