Like members of any other group, the survivors of the 9/11 attacks and the family members of victims don't always agree on how America ought to handle terror suspects. Some have advocated for a more aggressive approach to prosecuting the detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Others believe that the men should be treated more humanely within the framework of our existing criminal laws.
(AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Never will the true-believers in each group agree upon a solution. So it is not surprising, then, that President Obama has chosen to meet with a group of 9/11 families that happens to agree with his worldview on what to do with the detainees. This afternoon at the White House the president met with a group called "September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows," which believes, among other things, that there should be no military prosecutions down at Gitmo and that the detainees there should be given due process as regular criminal defendants in our civilian courts.
In their public letter to the President in advance of their visit, the group's leaders wrote:
We are deeply troubled that the Guantánamo proceedings have not only denied the detainees their rights as human beings, they have tainted the reputation of this country around the globe. We hope that the evidence against these defendants will be presented in Federal Court in compliance with due process of law under the Constitution. After consulting with Constitutional lawyers, we are confident that it can be done. As 9/11 family members we care deeply that justice be served in these prosecutions, which are often perceived by others as vindication for our loved ones.4591246President Obama has a delicate dance here, for his views on what to do with the detainees is not nearly as clear or as single-minded as are the views of those in the "Peaceful Tomorrows" group. For example, the White House has never declared that it wants to bring terror masterminds like Khalid Sheik Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshibh to the United States for a criminal trial (like the zany conspiracy trial we saw for Zacarias Moussaoui). Nor have Administration officials yet come up with a plan to safely disband the detainees from Gitmo.
There is a real and deep symbolism about the new President meeting early in his term with the people most directly affected by the horrors of September 11, 2001. It is a reminder, a moment of respect, for a group of people who will carry with them until the day they die a special sadness and place in American history. And I suspect that future Presidents also will visit with these people until there are no survivors and family members left to meet.
Some have reasonably wondered whether it's appropriate for the President to be meeting with these folks at this time—in the heat of the battle over a stimulus package. I wonder instead whether—and when—the President is going to meet with 9/11 families who don't happen to share his political persuasion or views on justice, retribution, and the fate of men who, accurately or not, have been tied to terrorism. The members of those other groups, who oppose "Peaceful Tomorrows," deserve their time at the White House, too.
Andrew Cohen is a CBS News legal analyst.