Stones and seashells in honor of the people killed in the Sept. 11 attacks began emerging at a signpost at Guantánamo Bay several years ago, not far from the courtroom for war crimes cases.
“In memory of all those who died of post-9/11 illness,” says a message inscribed on a chunk of coral. “Yeneneh Betru — Jan. 21, 1966 to Sept. 11, 2001 — Life is too short,” says another honoring a physician from California.
A rite of sorts, it has been going on so long that some of the messages have faded in the Caribbean sunshine.
“Aunt Lorraine: We miss you. We love you,” says a message to a flight attendant who was one of nearly 3,000 killed in the coordinated hijackings.
The 19 hijackers died that day. U.S. commandos hunted down and killed Osama bin Laden years later. But pretrial proceedings for four men accused of conspiring in the plot are now in their second decade.
For most hearings, the prosecutors bring about 10 people who were injured or lost family members in the attacks to watch the proceedings. Over the years, more than 150 of the people who were killed on Sept. 11 have been represented in the hearings by relatives.
With no date set yet for the trial to begin, their messages have become a way to reflect individual loss at the end of a week of watching dry legal arguments about evidence and process that rarely mention the loss of that day.
Some family members have come looking for answers about why the United States was so vulnerable then. Some find it infuriating that the trial has not yet begun. Some come simply to represent a loved one who was killed in an attack that, for some Americans, has become as distant as the one at Pearl Harbor.
Earlier this year, after watching a hearing, Cindy McGinty found a smooth white piece of coral and wrote of her late husband: “Michael G. McGinty. Never forgotten.” She drew a little dragonfly and wrote 9/11.
The father of two from Massachusetts, a Naval Academy graduate, went to a business meeting in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 and never came home. He was 42.
“Americans all said, ‘Never forget,’” she said. “But it’s fading in America’s memory. It’s my way of never letting him be forgotten. It’s all packed in that little stone.”
As she put it there, she said to herself, “I don’t know how, but someday, somehow there should be justice.”
The families of those killed do not agree on what justice means. Some are waiting for a death-penalty trial, a scenario that Brig. Gen. Jackie L. Thompson Jr., the chief defense counsel for military commissions, predicted could take years to begin and then last 18 months.
Others have supported a plea agreement that would require the defendants to admit their individual roles in the plot in exchange for being spared the possibility of execution. Evidence would be presented in what would look like a mini trial before a military jury, which could sentence them, individually, to life in prison at most.
Little such debate is reflected in these messages. They are personal, painful and poignant.
“So sorry I never got to meet you,” a relative wrote to the unborn child of John and Sylvia Resta, who were killed at the World Trade Center. Sylvia was seven months pregnant with their first child.
The memory stones lie in an unlikely spot — walking distance to the court, near a row of flags and a sturdy sign proclaiming the area “Camp Justice.” A tent city went up there, hastily, 16 years ago. Pentagon planners, envisioning a speedy trial for Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and his associates, thought hundreds of visitors would need lodging for the legal proceedings.
In the passing years, anti-sniper netting, surveillance equipment and rings of razor wire were added around it. Workers are slowly setting up a new trailer park to house legal teams for the someday trial.
News crews broadcast live from the sign, but their shots cannot show the security features. Visitors pose for souvenir selfies and group photos in front of the sign with the same restrictions. Military units and legal teams hold re-enlistment and awards ceremonies there.
It has emerged as a rare site of remembrance at this base, which now holds the last 30 of 780 detainees of the war on terrorism at a prison operation that was set up four months after the Sept. 11 attacks.
In the intervening years, the attacks have receded in the collective memory here.
A 9/11 memorial flag flies over the base fire station. But after 20 years, the base recreation department abandoned its annual 9.11 kilometer run. Rare is the occasion when a resident of the Navy base finds his or her way to the court to watch the proceedings.
So, as much by default as by design, the symbolic gateway has become a place of remembrance, pilgrimage and celebration. A stone was recently left there for Stephen Driscoll, a New York City policeman who died trying to rescue people in the World Trade Center.