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They sit behind a thick glass partition and watch the men accused of plotting to kill their loved ones on 9/11. Each time the court meets at Guantanamo Bay, the government invites a different group of relatives to witness the proceedings. Five men face death penalty charges. The latest court session took place earlier this month and when it was over, NPR's David Welna met with several of the family members who were there.
DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: We sit in a small circle inside an old airplane hangar near the Guantanamo war court. These people all have at least one thing in common - each lost a family member in the 9/11 attacks. Thad Rasmussen's mother Rhonda died at the Pentagon. He winces as he recalls seeing the five men accused of killing her.
THAD RASMUSSEN: It was very difficult to see them as humans.
WELNA: Likewise, for Joel Shapiro, a 67-year-old New Yorker. His wife, Sareve Dukat, died on the 86th floor of the World Trade Center's south tower.
JOEL SHAPIRO: I was, on some visceral level, surprised that they didn't have two heads and four arms and they looked almost human in form. And I say almost because their actions, I believe, have taken away their right to be treated as humans, to be treated humanely.
ROBERT MATHAI: I think I just really want to kind of push back against that, if I may.
WELNA: Tufts University student Robert Mathai was 8 when his father Joseph died at the World Trade Center. For Mathai, the way the accused are treated does matter.
MATHAI: It behooves us to treat them better than they would necessarily treat the people that they do torture and do terrible things to because if we want to be the better people, we have to hold ourselves accountable.
WELNA: In some ways, it seems like you're saying that there's more on trial than just these five defendants on display here.
MATHAI: It's very true that a lot of American values are being tested and the idea of whether or not we can hold these guys indefinitely without any reason behind them as enemy combatants, whether or not that's fair under the Geneva Convention, whether or not they're entitled to these rights - these are all very intense, elevated discussions and I think the very fact that we're having them is huge.
WELNA: One thing all the family members agree on is that while this proceeding is about justice, it should also be about what really happened, even the painful truths. Again, Joel Shapiro.
SHAPIRO: What I'm encouraged by is, yesterday for the first time, the Senate report on torture came up in open court.
WELNA: That would be a recently declassified Senate report on the CIA's interrogation and detention of suspected terrorists, including some of the five men in that courtroom.
SHAPIRO: That has been very much the elephant in the room that no one was allowed to mention. Now that it is mentioned in open court, it will have to be dealt with, it will be.
WELNA: The defense lawyers are looking at what's in that report and thinking that these descriptions of the interrogations their clients went through may serve as a mitigating factor in a trial where their death is being sought.
ADELE WELTY: I feel that the death penalty is not something I want my government to be involved in.
WELNA: That's Adele Welty, who's 78. Her son Timothy, a firefighter, died at the World Trade Center.
WELTY: So, even though it's a big hill to climb in this particular case because I have an even bigger hill to climb with the presumption of innocence, in this case, I don't think deliberately killing people is a civilized way of handling retribution and accountability.
WELNA: There are other hills to climb. The family members just met with the lawyers defending the men accused of killing their relatives. They're not sure what to make of them. Robert Mathai came away impressed.
MATHAI: Because the point of the defense attorney, like John Adams and the Boston Massacre, is to take the unpopular decision - or role, in this case - and defend them as well as possible to show that there's no miscarriage of justice. And as hard as it is for them, I thank them a lot for doing that because it's a very tough role.
RASMUSSEN: If I may - this is Thad again. I understand that their duty is not to presume judgment and to defend their client. I just have a hard time understanding how they sleep easy at night or wonder if they have a harrowing time performing their job duties.
WELNA: Yes, Joel?
SHAPIRO: One of the things I did with each defense team was invite them to come down to the 9/11 Memorial Museum, where I'm a volunteer docent, and I will give them a private tour. Just as I saw that their clients don't have two heads, I want them to see the faces of 2,977 individuals.
WELNA: What was their response?
SHAPIRO: They all responded warmly, positively. I'm going to set up the visits for anyone who wants to come.
WELNA: And on that note, I'm wondering about back in the States, whether you have a sense of how present this terrible event is right now in people's mind as the years go by?
SHAPIRO: There's a difference between the ever-presence of this event, certainly in the New York psyche, and whether anyone knows or cares that there's anything going on here. Because from the standard point of news, which is stale the moment you report it, this is very much like watching paint dry.
WELTY: I don't think anybody focuses on Guantanamo other than the families.
WELNA: Again, Adele Welty, the mother of the firefighter.
WELTY: I've spoken to innumerable people who know very well that I lost my son on 9/11 and couldn't understand what in the world I would be doing coming here. It's as though we live in an alternate universe where we know about certain things that are going on, but the rest of the world has moved on from 9/11.
WELNA: We end with a question for all four.
How do you feel after this visit?
RASMUSSEN: This is Thad. It was a positive experience, even if it was a roller coaster of emotion.
MATHAI: I'm definitely glad I came down.
WELNA: Robert Mathai also has a better opinion of the war court than he did before coming down.
MATHAI: A lot can be changed, but I think they are doing a relatively good job.
WELTY: I'm very glad that I came. I find that spending time with other 9/11 families is always a healing experience for me.
SHAPIRO: My wife's first love was history. She would have always wanted to be an integral part of this historic situation - not quite the way it unfolded for her. But I can't think of any place that she would rather be than here, witnessing the unfolding of these historical events.
WELNA: David Welna, NPR News.
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