I initially meant to write this piece as a reflection of 17 years of law practice in human rights while countering terrorism. On August 14, the Taliban recaptured Kabul, and the work that has followed since seems to have defied any form of stability, certainty, or authority any of us might have acquired in the last 20 years. It was a painful — and harrowing — sunset over a war that defined my generation, drew my career’s trajectory in rubble, and left too many phone calls unanswered.
Twenty years on, I am struggling to find words for a closure we were never handed.
THE DAY THAT CHANGED THE WORLD
9/11 was my first day of law school.
I had just left New York City after being a rebellious and undisciplined teenager from West Belfast. I was under the impression that although I had landed at JFK and not Ellis Island, I was blazing some sort of trail. My attachment to the city never left. To this day, I still divide my time between Belfast and Brooklyn. It was just past three in the afternoon, in Paris, where I attended classes at La Sorbonne, when the news broke that a plane had crashed into the Twin Towers. I watched the television screen, captivated by shock, unable to comprehend what I was witnessing. I certainly could never have foreseen what the world would then be catapulted into. Five years later, I took on my first counterterrorism assignment.
So many factors contributed to having spent the bulk of my life in national security environments. Perhaps this ominous first day in law school defined my stance in international human rights law. Perhaps it was the streets of Belfast. Perhaps it was my grandfather’s stint in the Algerian resistance. That day, like many, signaled the end of teenage innocence. It precipitated the world into an obscurantism from which we have yet to emerge. I have worked on cases involving CIA rendition, trawling through pages and pages of accounts of torture, coldly and scientifically designed to provoke helplessness. I watched the satellite imagery that formed a prelude to a drone strike that would likely kill civilians. I read the accounts of the extraordinary resistance of the last librarian of Palmyra. I have not seen the end of the war on terror. There is no end.
There is a before — and an after — to the war on terror. Yet, for a whole generation, there was no before. No one can explain how different airports looked or how difficult political stances on the deployment of armed forces once were. Talking about torture as an absolute prohibition feels like invoking ancestral principles and ideals. The once hallowed halls of the UN headquarters in New York City, which I’ve run down much too often, now have the torn and stained flag retrieved from the 2003 bombing of the Canal Hotel in Baghdad. I’ve stared at that flag a lot and was present when it returned to the UN Plaza. In a way, with it, was once buried the rule of law, and the idea that there was a way to reign the terror that was unleashed. Counterterrorism became state terror. State terror bred more terrorism. All I could see were civilians trapped in strategic mistakes: Poorly devised counterextremism policies that could barely grasp the very concept of radicalization; cheap shots aimed at controlling the press, religion, and thought; and a division so extreme in democratic societies, it could take another 20 years to fix.
WILL THE WAR EVER END?
I returned to academia this year in the vain hope I could take a breather after 17 years of running around in forgotten and forsaken lands that had been reduced to red pinpoints on a deployment map. There, where law students that, unlike me, had never known any semblance of balance between powers; that had been reared and raised in judicial deference to national security; and that were all too cynical about their putative role as lawyers, especially being civil rights and human rights lawyers, when violence is, as the great John Sifton put it in 2002, all around. They had been born in the years before 9/11. Some of them had not started kindergarten. None of them knew where they were on 9/11. They do not remember. They’ve seen footage, of course. The internet told them about conspiracy theories about jet fuel and steel beams. The slow and horrific, harrowing descent of bodies throwing themselves out the windows of the South Tower is as distant as the 1991 Gulf War could be for me.
There is a before — and an after — to the war on terror. Yet, for a whole generation, there was no before.
But our skyline has changed. I say “our,” because I believe I have claimed the legitimate mantle of a New Yorker. Around it grew a memorial, and a museum, and gradually, as photos of my friends attest, a tower was raised, slowly but steadily, and now crowns Lower Manhattan where there was once two. On social media, a photo of a blonde little girl in a purple dress, taken likely in Hoboken, NJ with the twin towers behind her, was annotated, “the world you were raised to live in no longer exists.” I think about this photo a lot. I think about what we have come to know as familiar, a landscape that calls home, a cinematic view that comforts, no longer exists. It didn’t disappear, it wasn’t erased; it was brutally ripped from our town, our lives, our consciousness. It took, with it, thousands of lives. Their loss and their absence created the shape of the post–9/11 world. Yet, their names are rarely uttered. Their history is never mentioned. On the other hand, 60 words defined the last 20 years, in the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force. Sixty words turned the world into a battlefield. Sixty words pretended they could eradicate what has always existed and will always exist: Violence as a means of expression and the suppression of fundamental human rights in the name of authority. It was very clear none of us had been swept into the Iraq War, and the Afghan War, then satellite engagements — Yemen, Syria, Somalia, Pakistan — in the name of the dead. We were there in the name of vengeance.
None of the so-called victories felt useful. I did not feel relief when then President Barack Obama announced the killing of Osama Bin Laden. I knew it would not be the end. For those who felt some kind of closure, I knew that feeling would be temporary. Another enemy would rise; another leader would take his place; we would always run to ensure no other group would ever have the capability to destroy decades and decades of symbolism in the most diverse city I’ve ever lived in.
I returned to Belfast and its architecture of conflict with the same sense of chaotic purpose but was met with a dwindling and distant hope for reconciliation. Bombs rarely detonate anymore, the staccato of rifle shooting rare enough to be noticed. It was once in the background of my life. Peace is, however, not the absence of conflict. It is much more substantial than that. It demands commitment, at every turn: To civil society, to human rights, to accountability, to justice. As the last CENTCOM flight departed Afghanistan on August 30, this is what it felt like: A chapter closing at long last, without peace, and certainly without justice. The absence of both left a lingering spectre of impunity, and violence all around.
THE PAINFUL LACK OF CLOSURE
I have never let 9/11 pass without commemoration. The Tribute in Lights is a wonderful display: quiet, reliable, dressing itself across the late summer nights of New York City. It doesn’t announce itself, it is just noticed. On the 10th of every September, regardless of how late I find myself in the city, I see in others the same reflex of looking up. It’s there, the spotlights are here, the towers are in the sky. We all continue walking, eating, drinking, talking. I continue flying, litigating, advocating, running, interviewing, note-taking. Human rights while countering terrorism is a discipline that many think was born out of the abuses of the war on terror; but it was, even if not by name necessarily, a response to the horrors inflicted upon Northern Ireland by the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, introduced in 1973 and 1974 to counter the Irish republican threat. The Internment, which lasted for several months in 1971, continues to haunt Northern Ireland, Ireland, and the UK. Torture in terrorism detention is still behind a thick layer of secrecy while its victims are slowly dying before seeing public acknowledgement and accountability. Counterterrorism is not new. Extreme violence and collective punishment as a response to fear is not new. I was running away from my home to find another one that would end up in rubble.
New York City survived, and is attempting to take care of those having contracted disease due to fumes, rubble, or construction materials. The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America is trying to care for the young servicemembers of those wars on terror. They leave civilian deaths unaccounted for, and the broken psyche of purposelessness. Once dubbed “the forever wars,” I am now looking out my window and thinking, 20 years on, it may be time to abandon the idea of peace, and just settle for minimizing conflict. As a lawyer, this is a very difficult conclusion to draw. A photo taken by photojournalist Marcus Yam captured two men outside Hamid Karzai International Airport last week, watching a C-17 take off at sunset, while crowds gathered past a Taliban checkpoint to attempt to leave Afghanistan. At this minute, things, in this picture, appeared to be still. The rest of us never will be.
Sarah Kay is a human rights lawyer specialized in national security, counterterrorism, and warfare. She is from, and currently lives in Belfast, Northern Ireland after 15 years in New York City.
“The Long Tunnel” is a series of articles reflecting on the impact of September 11 and how it has shaped the world we live in today. You can read more in the series here.