To New York — To New York: Notes for a Short Film

On November 18th, 2009, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced his decision to move the trials of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other 9/11 terror suspects from a military to a civil venue. “I am a prosecutor,” Holder said in a prepared statement, “and as a prosecutor my top priority was simply to select the venue where the government will have the greatest opportunity to present the strongest case in the best forum.” So the Attorney General decided that those who are accused of plotting the 2001 attacks should be put on trial right here, in New York City.

He saw the poetic justice, the “symbolic significance,” in this. “After eight years of delay,” Holder said, “those allegedly responsible for the attacks of September the 11th will finally face justice. They will be brought to New York — to New York — to answer for their alleged crimes in a courthouse just blocks away from where the twin towers once stood.”

The idea that justice will be served by returning Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his cohorts for trial to the scene of their crime is an argument advanced by more than one of Holder’s defenders. The eighth district’s own Jerrold Nadler thinks it’s “fitting that they be tried in New York, where the attack took place”; Senator Jack Reed, of Rhode Island, thinks New Yorkers are likely to render a just verdict because we lived here on 9/11: “I can’t think of a better group of people to judge the guilt or innocence and the punishment for these individuals than people in New York who saw the towers fall.”

Republicans opposed the idea (and Holder’s weak performance before the Senate Judiciary Committee did nothing to win them over). “We generally don’t bring people back to the scene of the crime for justice,” said former Mayor Rudy Giuliani of Holder’s decision. The Obama administration, he continued, wants to send a message from New York City to the world: “both in substance and reality, the war on terror, from their point of view, is over.” Giuliani criticized the decision as a return to “pre-9/11 mentality” (failing to mention that he, Jeff Sessions and others had defended and even praised the Bush administration’s decision to try Zacarias Moussaoui here in 2002). Alice Hoagland (the aggrieved mother of a 9/11 victim, who lives – by the way — in Los Gatos, California), testified that she “can’t help feeling that it does make New York City a much more dangerous place and a target.” That may turn out to be true.

In any event, it has already made the city the scene of a bitter political contest.

A few weeks after Holder testified, on a cold, rainy Saturday, a crowd of about 300 firefighters, teabaggers, 9/11 families, and prominent conservatives rallied against the decision in Foley Square, right near the Federal courthouse in Manhattan. I had a camera, and covered the rally. The crowd was angry. They denounced Holder, booed him, and called for his resignation; David Beamer, father of 9/11 hero Todd Beamer, called on the President to fire him. People complained about the extension of constitutional rights to terrorists – calling them war criminals, not ordinary murderers. One man wearing an NRA hat and carrying an American flag with “Don’t Tread on Me” printed on it said the Obama administration was out to embarrass America, the West and “the white race.” There, in Foley Square, as on talk radio and on TV, the debate over the appropriate venue of the 9/11 trials had gotten confused with other issues.

The passions of some New Yorkers are running high. More rallies are sure to come. And all is not confusion. There are important questions to answer. Human rights advocates rightly point out that our civil justice system is resilient, and departing from our standards of justice might undermine any verdict reached and play into anti-American propaganda. But Holder never satisfactorily answered why some terrorists should be tried in civil venues here in New York, while others should be held in military commissions set up elsewhere. There are genuine security worries; and the expense and inconvenience to New Yorkers are not trivial concerns.

Unanswered questions around the trials are creating a vacuum, and politics abhors a vacuum. In the debate over where justice will best be served, the memory of the 9/11 attacks is taking on new political colors. The controversy over what is about to happen at the Federal courthouse in Foley Square is also a controversy over what happened here in New York in 2001 – a struggle for the memory and meaning of September 11th.

If you ask me, there are no easy answers here. I suspect most New Yorkers share my ambivalence about bringing Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his associates to New York City for trial. Capturing and characterizing that ambivalence – staying with it, bracketing it or framing it, giving it form, definition and color without reducing it to pro and contra, populating it with characters and conversations – that is one challenge of the filmmaking here.

Most New Yorkers are not going to turn out for rallies; but no New Yorker can be fairly accused of having a pre-9/11 mentality. We live the post-9/11 reality, right here, every day. The whole world has changed; we have gone to war; we are still at war, all because of what happened right here, a little over eight years ago. And now, at the beginning of 2010, we still live here, in the same place – or is it a different place?

That’s a question, maybe the central question, the camera in To New York – To New York explores.

The project is to document the city right now, as it looks forward – with anger and uncertainty, existential dread, hedonistic indifference, or stoic resolve – to the arrival of the terror trials.

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