The Guantánamo Bay detention center received its first detainees on January 11, 2002, four months after the 9/11 attacks that precipitated the facility’s creation. According to the rhetoric of Bush Administration officials, the detention facility’s purpose after 9/11 was simple and obvious: it was there to keep ordinary Americans safe by keeping the most dangerous terrorists the United States military and intelligence communities could find under lock and key. But the administration’s reasons for creating the Guantánamo Bay facility, and the legal and political foundations on which they did so, were far more complicated.
That detention center was at the center of two conflicting responses to 9/11, which the Bush Administration tried to pursue simultaneously. One response was to investigate the 9/11 attacks in order to find the terrorists responsible for their planning and execution, detain those individuals, and try them for violations of law. The second response was to initiate an armed conflict against terrorist organizations and their state sponsors more broadly, including against those with loose or no ties to the individuals responsible for the 9/11 attacks. However, administration officials conflated these different responses and failed to develop a coherent strategy for fighting terrorism that would further either objective. The Guantánamo Bay detention program embodied that failure. The legal, political, and moral crisis that it has represented for fifteen years serves as evidence of the dangers of responding to national tragedies outside the bounds of established policy and legal frameworks.