SPRING HILL — In a courtroom in a heavily fortified corner of Cuba, Joe Holland first saw the men who killed his son.
He heard them boast about what they had done, how they engineered the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people on Sept. 11, 2001.
Despite the years of delays and allegations that the men were tortured, despite other failed prosecutions and the debate about the fairness of the military commissions, Holland felt satisfied that justice was being done.
"They are saying they are murderers," Holland thought. "Let's get it over with."
That was Jan. 19, the day before Barack Obama was sworn in as president. The next day, court recessed for the inauguration. It did not resume.
On his second full day in office, President Obama signed an order halting the trials for 120 days and he promised to close the controversial prison at Guantanamo Bay, which for many had become a tainted symbol of a long and unpopular war.
At a news conference outside the courtroom, a reporter asked Holland if he was frustrated. "I said, 'Would you be frustrated that you lost your son and they aren't going to do anything about it?' "
He returned home to Spring Hill emboldened with a mission: to stop a presidential order that seemed unstoppable.
• • •
Weeks later, at a Veterans of Foreign Wars hall in Spring Hill, the 65-year-old retired New York City firefighter gave a talk that he has made a lot recently.
He talked about his son, Joey, a 32-year-old commodities trader who was working in the North Tower of the World Trade Center. He talked about how the Pentagon created a program that enabled family members like him to go to Guantanamo to see the trials and tour the facility.
And he talked about what he had seen there — the state-of-the-art courtroom with top security, how every accommodation is made for the defendants: laptops and multiple opportunities each day to pray toward Mecca.
"They are handled with kid gloves," he said.
In the courtroom he stared at Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the confessed mastermind of the attacks, and said to himself: "I'm looking at evil."
Holland rejected the idea of moving the trials to a federal court in the United States. He feared it would allow the men to obtain secret intelligence that would lead to future terrorist attacks. He worried prosecutors wouldn't get a conviction. And he believed the courthouse would become a target for a bombing.
"If you move them to the States, you'd have to close down the city," said Holland, a former U.S. Marine. "I think it's a tragedy to even think about moving them to America."
But more than anything, he doesn't want the United States to appear weak. Closing the prison, he said, amounts to "bowing to international pressure ... and basically admitting we did something wrong."
He circulated a homemade petition with the words "JUSTICE DELAYED IS JUSTICE DENIED" in bold type. He asked for signatures and told people to call the White House, which he does nearly every day.
His word-of-mouth efforts are personal and informal (he has about 500 signatures so far), but part of a larger grass-roots effort nationwide. Led by conservative groups such as Move America Forward, activists are campaigning to keep the detention camps at the U.S. naval base open despite the president's decision to shutter it.
"Guantanamo Bay is the best place we have at this point," said Danny Gonzalez, a spokesman for Move America Forward. "And it's definitely better than bringing them here with all the legal ramifications and difficulties it presents in prosecuting them."
Holland is not connected to the group, though he encourages people to sign its Internet petition, which has collected about 10,000 signatures.
And he doesn't consider his role in promoting the debate significant, even though his trip made him a widely quoted figure in the media.
"I'm just a father whose son was murdered," he said. "I just want justice for him and everyone else."
• • •
Stacy Sullivan, a counterterrorism specialist with Human Rights Watch, met Holland when she went to Cuba to watch the trials. And she understands his pain.
"Everyone wants to see justice done," she said. But "we want to see them face justice in a system that can't be questioned afterward."
Her group is pushing to have the approximately 240 detainees brought to justice in U.S. courts, where hearsay and evidence obtained from torture is not allowed.
For Holland, hearing the men proudly declare their guilt was enough proof they deserve the death penalty. But Sullivan says their desire to be killed at the hands of the United States is not an endorsement of the process; it only means they are willing to become religious martyrs.
The future of the prison and the detainees remains unclear. The cloud surrounding the treatment of the detainees is only intensifying with the recent release of memos detailing the use of harsh interrogation techniques.
But the direction set by the White House leads experts to suggest the trials won't resume, at least not in their current form.
Holland thinks differently. He expects the court to start again when the four-month suspension ends in late May. He said he will keep the debate alive.
"It's not anger, it's like maybe, I'm accomplishing something," Holland said of his motivation. "Maybe if I talk loud enough and long enough, maybe somebody will listen."
John Frank can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 754-6114.