Discover more from the disturbed universe
a perfect world
9/11 families not fighting, but forgiving, 18 years later
written April 2019
Her hands are steady as she pages through the story of her child. Newspaper clippings and photocopied pages tell the tale of her only son, recalling memories from faraway corners of her mind. This is a dance she must have done many times before; the moves are slow, calm, the expression unwavering. Like reading Braille, she traces the outline of her son’s face, immortalized on those pages for eternity. The years since 2001 have been long.
James “Jimmy” Woods was only 26 when he called his family from the 104th floor of the World Trade Center, leaving a message they would replay forever. I love you all. Take care. He was a trader with Cantor Fitzgerald (one of 658 that the company lost that day), a lover of U2, a loyal New Jersey Jets fan and a mama’s boy. He lost his life on September 11, 2001, just two days after his sister moved next door to him, just a weekend after the end of the summer, at the start of football season. He remains among the thousands of victims of the 9/11 terror attacks in New York City.
But his mother Joyce could never forget his face. Looking at those photographs is how she remembers; but she also recalls the days that followed, the anguish and pain that her family would forever experience, and the absence of justice that she would somehow manage to live with. Almost 18 years after the attacks on September 11, 2001, Woods and thousands of others still grieve their family members, awaiting justice for what was taken from them. A number of wrongful death lawsuits were filed on behalf of over 100 victims against United Airlines for negligence in allowing the terrorists onboard in the first place, and the last lawsuit was only just settled in 2011 with confidential damage payments. But of these seven men arrested, only five have been tried, and they likely never will be.
Joyce Woods was once a firm believer in the military system put in place to bring some form of justice after 9/11, but no longer. “I have absolutely no faith in the military commission,” said Woods, who still struggles to comprehend the amount of time this has taken. Though she admits she’ll never give up hope that justice will somehow be served, her hope is dwindling. “Something is always missing, and the hole in my heart is eternal,” she said. “Of course I want justice for my son. I am still devastated by his murder. I continue to experience different stages of grief. I am outraged that a kind and good man like my son was terrorized, tortured and suffered a horrendous death. I hate those who are responsible. I hate the evil—the deliberate act of killing.”
The failure to prosecute the most heinous men in American history highlights the challenges that our modern legal system is still not yet equipped to face, as well as the mistakes made along the sad, dark, and confusing way from 2001 until now. As of March 2019, the FBI was presented with a lawsuit forcing the public assessment of all evidence collected, even previously unreported evidence. Sifting through the legal jargon is impossible for most families, many of whom, like Mrs. Woods, still deeply mourn their losses.
President George W. Bush delivers “Bullhorn Speech” at Ground Zero, September 14, 2001
The speed and haste with which the United States government responded to the September 11th attacks is almost unbelievable. President George W. Bush stood at Ground Zero and promised that somehow, justice would be found. At that time, it came in the form of a confusing war that most could not explain. The enemy was an anonymous Other located somewhere in the Middle East. It was a faceless adversary that incited racist attacks across the country. Still, Americans had difficulty grasping what little information seeped through the Bush Administration and the mainstream media. The Middle East became a faceless enemy. The FBI reported that between 2001 and 2002, hate crimes against Muslims increased by over 1700 percent, with 28 in 2001 and 481 in 2002 – and those were just the ones that were reported. The general confusion, anguish, and incredible sadness in the months following 9/11 came at the expense of innocent Muslims, including one Sikh man killed in Mesa, Arizona by a revenge killer set on targeting “towelheads.” The media was not innocent in this blind battle either, with the now infamous journalist Judith Miller coining a term that now feels redundant to say: “weapons of mass destruction.”
Still, of the seven men arrested in direct connection to the 9/11 attacks, only two have been tried and sentenced. Zacarias Moussaoui received life in prison though he maintained that he was only involved with al-Qaeda but not the 9/11 attacks. Mounir El Motassadeq was convicted in Germany in 2003 for over 3,000 counts of accessory to murder, and then later in 2005 on terrorist charges for his financial involvement with al-Qaeda. But so-called “mastermind” Khalid Sheikh Mohamed and his co-conspirators Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Mustafa Ahmad al-Hawsawi, Ali Abd al-Aziz Ali, and Walid Bin Attash have yet to be tried.
In January of 2002, the American Bar Association announced that any non-citizens of the United States with suspected ties to al-Qaeda could be detained and tried by a military authority. All detainees were outside the realm of habeas corpus under the Military Commissions Act of 2006, which President George W. Bush signed into law about four hours after the attacks. But in 2008, the Boumediene v. Bush decision declared that detainees do, in fact, have the right to legal counsel, to cross-examine the prosecution’s witnesses, to know the evidence against them, and to protect themselves against self-incrimination, as well as the opportunity, for the first time since 9/11, to challenge their charges in a court of law. President Obama vowed throughout his 2008 campaign to revert the military commission back to its 2006 standing, but after just one week Obama’s own executive order was overturned by Army Colonel James Pohl, who claimed that because the detainees experienced “enhanced interrogation” tactics – or torture, in laymen’s terms – that it is not only against the United States Constitution, but also against the Geneva Convention, for detainees to be tried in a federal court.
That is why they cannot be tried. Dr. Karen Greenberg, Director of the Center of National Security at Fordham University provides the simple, albeit unpalatable definition to what “enhanced interrogation” might possibly entail, the definitive reason to these never-ending trials: “Torture. That’s the short answer. Torture.”
After their arrests, five of those seven men were subjected to brutal torture, which included waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and rectal rehydration, according to the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence documents made public in 2014. Any evidence procured from torture cannot be used in a court of law. So this military commission was doomed from the start, says Dr. Greenberg. No matter what they said or confessed to, or even what they did, once the threshold of torture was crossed, those men could no longer legally be tried. There was absolutely nowhere to go from there.
And now, says Carol Rosenberg, award-winning journalist who has reported on the military prison at Guantanamo for almost two decades, they’re still at a stand-still. Rosenberg’s reports allow readers into “a place that most people would rather ignore, about trials that move at a glacial pace,” she said. “And sometimes when you think they’re going forward, they turn around and go backwards.” Backwards indeed, agrees former FBI agent and CEO of a security intelligence consulting firm Ali Soufan, who expressed that the longer these men remain untried, the worse it could be for the security of our country and of the world. “Some of them can come back and go to jail, some of them can probably be used to advocate against the false narrative of these groups. There are so many things they can be used for. But I think we need to take advantage of it, since either we’re going to pay for it now by bringing them, prosecute them, or we’re going to pay for it later by something else, unfortunately. Something like the East Africa Embassy bombing, or even, God forbid, 9/11.”
However, legal settlements and lawsuits are likely the only closure that might help these families. “We have to offer them something,” said Professor David Eisenbach of Columbia University. “This is the least we can do.”
Even the United States government is on the offensive in some cases, struggling to decipher who should quite literally pay for the attacks. In May 2018, a judge in the Southern District court of New York ordered Iran to pay $6 billion to victims of 9/11 and their families, accusing the country of educating the terrorists. Lawsuits filed against Saudi Arabia, the country of the attackers’ citizenships, were only allowed in 2016 after the passing of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorist Act (JASTA). Saudi Arabia has been accused of supporting al-Qaeda financially as well as government ties to the hijackers. But little progress has been made on any legal scale, simply because there is no precedent to follow. What began as a seemingly simple trial, with multiple affirmative and credible, voluntary confessions, quickly transitioned into a pattern of brutal treatment, irresponsible evidence handling, and eventually an infringement upon human rights. Perhaps Dr. Greenberg is right, and these trials were indeed doomed from the beginning. But in any case, the families affected by that disastrous day deserve whatever degree of closure we could possibly offer them. They have suffered enough, and for long enough.
John, Joyce Woods, and Jimmy Woods
Just after the attacks, the families were offered a trip down to Cuba to witness the trials. Mrs. Woods and her husband John took the trip together in January of 2002 to Guantanamo Bay, where they met other parents who had lost their children. One such couple was Phyllis and Orlando Rodriguez, whose son Greg, 31, also worked for Cantor Fitzgerald. Perhaps Greg Rodriguez and Jimmy Woods shared curt nods, elevator rides, or even jokes on line for coffee, connecting in the most regular and unoriginal of ways, not having to think that those seemingly meaningless moments might end someday. As far as their parents know, the two men did not know each other, but their parents would later come to find a connection through a mutual loss, sitting close together in the courtrooms of the military prison in Guantanamo. But they left Cuba with nothing to show, even friendships, Mrs. Woods said. She thought those bonds would last forever. Now, it is just the two mothers, Joyce and Phyllis, left from that group that in 2002 felt so strong.
Phyllis and Orlando, vocal members of September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, sat white-knuckled with Joyce and John behind double-paned protective glass, listening to the audio feed of the trial through a 40-second delay to protect classified information. What Woods realized at that moment is something that sticks with her still: “They just looked like regular men.” For five days, the families, all adorned with plastic pins classifying them as Victim Family Members, sat behind that glass, but the trials dragged on. The anticlimactic trials are something Rodriguez especially was disturbed by, but not in anger against the men, but with sympathy for them.
Phyllis Rodriguez and Aisha El-Wafi (credit: TEDx)
Both the Woods and Rodriguez families have struggled with what they believe justice might be. At one time, the Woodses supported the death penalty, believing the men should be persecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Now, they side more with the Rodriguezes, who devote their energy towards promoting the rights of the accused. “This commission is illegitimate,” Mrs. Rodriguez said. Instead, she looks for healing outside of the courts. In 2002, the mother of convicted terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui extended her deepest condolences to those who were affected by 9/11. One of the very few people who responded was Phyllis Rodriguez. In an emotional embrace at the Memorial United Methodist Church in White Plains, New York, Rodriguez and Moussaoui’s mother Aisha El-Wafi mourned together the loss of their sons. It was something that only they two could understand; even soon after the attacks, victims were allowing space in their hearts for the attackers. They were finding a way to forgive. Rodriguez devotes her energy to countering Islamophobia and advocating for the rights of all accused.
It is through countering such negativity that the families continue. “I could talk about him forever,” Mrs. Woods said. Jimmy’s older sister Eileen said it would be the “worst thing” if people forgot about what happened that day. “It’s so important that we keep talking about it and we keep it alive. We need to know that people did not forget.” Eileen had moved into the same apartment building as Jimmy, just a few doors down, on Sunday, September 9, 2001. “What sister wants to move down the hall from her little brother?” she jokes now. “I did. That was the kind of friendship we had.” Eileen and her mother, along with Jimmy’s old girlfriend Kelly Zaky, remember him fondly and without much sadness at all, preferring giddy laughter at their memories. Zaky became a teacher at Jimmy’s suggestion, since his sister and mother were both in education. She followed his advice.
Kelly Zaky (then Landin) and Jimmy Woods
The three women don’t meet often, with Zaky married with her own children, (one with the middle name Jacob, for Jimmy). Mrs. Woods, though, knows the joy that Zaky brought to her son in his short life, and says she’ll always have a special love for her. In Zaky’s classroom where they agree to meet me, sharing their stories of Jimmy, they look right at home. It was like an old friend group catching up again. Before one could even get many words out between busting gasps of laughter, one of the others would finish the story, and without much verbalization at all the three of them would dissolve into laughs, a tear escaping from time to time, but never from sadness. They exist for an hour within their own universe, speaking a language only they three can understand, unified by something dark and unspoken yet fortifying nonetheless. It could go on forever – the remember whens, and he used tos, and Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy.
Before Zaky begins to talk about him, she cuts off to grab a pair of yellow-lens, black-framed sunglasses, and then places them between us in ceremony. When she puts them on, she says, it is to act out a story in a book she’s reading to her students, or to find her some divine peace. They are from a summer day on Fire Island, and they remind her of Jimmy. Jimmy, whose retired FDNY father donned his uniform on that fateful day, whose mother dropped her sixth grade Back to School preparations to flee home – Jimmy, whose house became command central with family, friends, neighbors desperate for answers, waiting, waiting, waiting. The Woods family is supported now by a foundation dedicated to their son with a yearly golf tournament, a testament to what he loved.
There will be no perfect world for Mrs. Woods. But she is sure that Jimmy lives still – Mrs. Woods sees 226, the numbers of his birthday, almost everywhere, especially during times like this. U2 songs play in public at awfully random times for Kelly. Talking about Jimmy is deliberate and artistic. Like some sonata, the three voices overlap in harmony, rising in crescendo at happy moments and then falling lower and softer in reflection. The day is warm and sunny. For a moment I wonder if the three of them are somewhere else, maybe on the porch of the Woods’ Pearl River home, back before everything changed; in a perfect world, Mrs. Woods thinks only of construction paper on a back-to-school bulletin board.
It is the bond of the Woods family that has weathered this most awful of storms. “I cherish my family,” Woods said. “They have sustained us. I appreciate our dear friends. I smile. I laugh. I enjoy our less than perfect life.” When the women finish sharing their stories, Woods hands me the folder of clippings and photos. “Here.” I tell her that I cannot take that, but she insists. I am sure that she would have other copies of everything, but it felt oddly personal. She was giving me a small history, a curated portfolio, of someone I had never known. “I’m happy you know Jimmy.” And when I pore over the sheets myself later that night, quiet and alone in the solitude, wondering if Jimmy was somewhere nearby, I realize that while I said my goodbyes earlier that day, it was his mother who carefully said during a parting embrace, “Take care.”
Jimmy with the sister that he loved.