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TJ. Hargrave was killed in the North Tower of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. More than a dozen years later, his brother Jamie was chosen in a U.S. government lottery to attend a week of pre-trial hearings at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, for the five men accused of plotting the attacks. These may rank among the most important legal proceedings in American history, but news of them made hardly a ripple.

“It’s your obligation as journalists to report these proceedings at least a little bit,” Jamie pleaded at a news conference after the hearings. He was speaking to an audience of nine.

Granted, these are only pre-trial hearings; the coverage may ramp up when the trials begin, probably in 2015. In the meantime, the filing and arguing of motions goes forth with all the drama of drying paint. But this legal wrangling is not the whole story of what’s happening at Guantánamo. And, five years after President Obama vowed to close the controversial prison within his first year in office, the whole story is vexingly hard to tell.

It starts with access. Nobody gets anywhere near Gitmo, let alone the hearings, without permission from the U.S. military, and applying to visit Camp Justice, where the military commissions are held, entails paperwork in quintuplicate. Trial observers like me never see the inside of the prisons, and even journalists never get to talk to the detainees.

Months elapse between sessions of the military commission, and attending in person generally means flying down to Gitmo on a military-organized plane for a whole week. You can’t exactly hop a shuttle and check things out. No wonder media bigshots avoid it.

For outsiders, Guantánamo is weirdly wrapped in a cotton wad of nice. The military minders who shepherd visitors away from restricted areas are paragons of good manners. And since the waters of the bay and the skies above it are relentlessly azure blue, some visitors seem to have a hard time remembering what they came for. The hearings schedule is haphazard, and meanwhile there are pleasure boats to be rented and commemorative T-shirts to be bought (not to mention a Castro bobblehead from Radio GTMO, bearing the inscription “Rockin in Fidel’s Backyard”).

Torture is Guantánamo’s Original Sin. It is both invisible and omnipresent. The U.S. government wants coverage of the 9/11 attacks, but not the waterboarding, sleep deprivation, prolonged standing and other forms of torture that the CIA applied to the defendants. It’s tricky, prosecuting the 9/11 case while trying to keep torture out of the public eye. “Torture is the thread running through all of this,” one of the detainees’ psychiatrists told me. “You can’t tell the story [of 9/11] without it.”

The 9/11 defendants are not being tortured today, at least not in the way they once were. But we don’t know much about conditions in their prison. For years, even its name, “Camp Seven,” was a secret. Proceedings have now ground to a halt while the mental competency of one defendant, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, is evaluated. He kept interrupting the hearings last month with shouts of “This is my life. This is torture. TOR! TURE!”

We’re not sure what else he said. Visitors observe the hearings behind sound-proof glass, with an audio feed that runs 40 seconds behind. When something sensitive is said in the courtroom, the infamous “hockey light” on the judge’s bench lights up and the comment is bleeped out. Bin al-Shibh’s audio went fuzzy partway through.

The degree of classification of banal matters is bewildering. A former camp commander issued a memo on exactly what material the defense lawyers were allowed to bring in to their clients. One thing that was not allowed to be brought in? The memo itself.

Cheryl Bormann, a defense attorney for Walid bin Attash, one of the 9/11 defendants, was not allowed to bring him a copy of The Black Banners, a book about 9/11 by a former FBI agent in which her client is mentioned. But a guard was allowed to give another of the defendants a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey. The defendant, Ammar al Baluchi, a conservative Muslim, reportedly returned it untouched to his lawyer.

Yet somehow, despite the tight web of restrictions on information and the turgid legal motions being filed and re-filed, Courtroom #2 at Guantánamo Bay presents a tableau of high drama. First there are the defendants themselves, all dressed in loose white garments, some with camouflage jackets and keffiyehs, and all sporting thick beards. The beard of Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of 9/11, rules the roost. It is dyed bright orange and fans out resplendently over his chest. Meanwhile, lining the wall alongside the defendants are a phalanx of clean-shaven, close-cropped young U.S. soldiers.

The legal teams also offer some strong personalities. Bormann wears a flowing black abaya out of respect for her conservative Muslim client. She speaks in a flat Illinois accent and seems to relish combat; she rarely addresses the judge as “your honor.” In the courtroom, Bormann makes a sharp contrast with chief prosecutor Mark Martins, a 6-foot-4 brigadier general wearing an impressive display of ribbons and medals across the chest of his jet-black uniform. Martins was first in his class at West Point, a Rhodes scholar, and likes to invite journalists and trial observers to go running with him at 4:30 a.m.

How to energize the broader public about these trials? The pop singer Esperanza Spalding has tried to do so in a song. In his new film “Camp X-Ray,” Peter Sattler imagines an emotional bond forming between a young female guard (played by ex-vampire Kristen Stewart) and a Yemeni detainee. It’s a far-fetched plot, but at least it allows a Guantánamo detainee to be portrayed on the big screen as a human being.

In the week I spent at Guantánamo Bay in December, I heard the names of Orwell and Kafka repeatedly invoked to describe what we were seeing. Maybe it will take writers and artists to evoke it; we might need fiction to describe reality. Where are Dave Eggers, Gary Shteyngart and Ha Jin when you need them? Calling all writers! There’s something you need to see at Guantánamo Bay.


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