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Catholic New Yorker continues quest for accountability 20 years after 9/11

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After seeing the Taliban's sweep through Afghanistan to retake governing control, Colleen Kelly wonders if accountability for the death of her brother in the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York 20 years ago and the subsequent war in Afghanistan will ever be achieved.

"This is really a hard week. It just feels like nothing has really changed," Kelly said Aug. 17, her voice cracking.

She has found herself repeatedly returning to thoughts of her brother, Bill, and the pain inflicted on him and nearly 3,000 others who died in the collapse of the towers, at the Pentagon and in rural Pennsylvania. There's also the emotional pain of surviving family and friends who experienced loss.

Just the same, Kelly has been reflecting on the anguish and loss experienced by Afghan families, particularly during the presence of the U.S.-led coalition forces between 2001 and their recent withdrawal. She wonders how they'll fare under the resurgent Taliban.

"In between these two endpoints (9/11 and the Taliban's return), there's been so much unnecessary suffering and loss. It really puts me back into those feelings of 20 years ago, of a loss that was very, very personal," said Kelly, a member of Fordham University Church in New York.

For nearly two decades, Kelly has worked to address her concerns about the use of violence — whether it is initiated or in response to a violent act. She considers any form of violence of a violation of human rights.

She has carried out her efforts through September 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, an organization she co-founded in the weeks after her brother's death as coalition forces mounted a military response in Afghanistan to the airliner attacks.

Kelly is troubled "that our loss was being invoked to ultimately cause so much suffering in others elsewhere."

When Kelly met others who had a friend or family member who was a 9/11 victim and who were just as concerned about the escalation of violence in response to terrorism, the organization was born. The founders, she said, wanted a new way forward.

"My focus is outward. It has been for a long time," Kelly explained. "Yes, it (the organization) was grounded in our personal loss, but it looked outward and it looked forward. That's one of the great strengths."

Yet the events of recent weeks are causing Kelly to "look backwards" and confront her pain anew.

Kelly's Catholic faith has sustained her work for justice; prayer grounds her within God.

"Prayer is also kind of connecting us to the suffering of others. My belief is, in some small ways I don't understand, certainly to alleviate the suffering of others," Kelly said.

Being grounded in God keeps her focused, moving ahead on the work of promoting peace while seeking accountability from all parties — for those who committed the crime of taking down the buildings and those who carried out war in response.

Kelly's work these days includes focusing on the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where dozens of men, some with suspected ties to terrorist organizations, remain held, some since 2002.

She works alongside organizations such as Witness Against Torture to get the detainees released. About 39 men remain detained, The New York Times reported July 19. The tally reveals seven have been charged within the military commission system, three have been proposed for charges and two more have been convicted. Ten detainees are awaiting release and 17 others have been recommended not to be released.

Overall, about 780 people have passed through the prison.

Kelly said she has visited Guantanamo 13 times. She wants to see as many detainees released as possible, particular those not facing military charges.

That "the work isn't over" motivates Kelly.

"The work is really about the United States response to 9/11 and that work certainly is not ended with the withdrawal of troops (from Afghanistan), the military commissions (tribunals at Guantanamo) — that work is not over," she said.

Neither is her quest for accountability.

"No one has ever been tried and prosecuted for the events of 9/11. Not a single person. (Al-Qaida leader Osama) bin Laden was killed extrajudicially. We know very, very, very little about how 9/11 happened," Kelly said.

"It sounds odd to say that because for most people it's kind of a closed chapter. But we know almost nothing about the nitty-gritty inner working of how 9/11 happened. There's never been a trial or evidence presented in court," Kelly said.

Kelly also called for the full 2014 report of the U.S. Senate select committee that investigated the Central Intelligence Agency's detention and interrogation program to be released — without the redactions.

Such steps would promote "collective healing," for the country, Kelly explained.

"Until there's accountability to what happened and the aftermath of what had happened, there's a gaping wound in the nation. Then the notion of restorative justice can begin. There has to be accountability for the harm committed. We've never had that personally nor collectively," she said.

"Whether it's my brother's life, whether it's the life of an Afghan citizen or an Iraqi or one of the 9/11 accused, the value and dignity of every person, we have to uphold that."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021