Political science major Julia McKay ’17 knew she wanted to work in Washington, D.C., after graduating from Kenyon. After a stint working on Capitol Hill, she became a national security policy intern at Human Rights First, a nonpartisan international human rights organization. In fall 2019, she traveled to Guantanamo Bay Naval Base to observe a pretrial hearing of the Guantanamo military commission against Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who is charged with planning and executing the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
Assistant Professor of Political Science Jacqueline McAllister, an expert on international relations and transitional justice, talked with her former student about her experience.
Jacqueline McAllister: Why are you excited about pursuing a career in human rights?
Julia McKay: I was drawn to human rights in my time at Kenyon. I took a class on human rights [PSCI 450: “Human Rights in World Politics”] with you, Professor McAllister, and I knew that I wanted to go into public service after Kenyon. Between my classes at Kenyon and then an internship I took between my junior and senior year, I knew I wanted to pursue that as a career. A lot of the world’s biggest problems have to do with human rights, and I think it’s an opportunity to use my skills to help people and solve challenging problems.
What was the most challenging or surprising aspect of visiting Guantanamo Bay?
I haven’t had a lot of experience with the military or on a military base. It was very controlled. We took off from Joint Base Andrews, right outside D.C., and everyone that had to do with the trial was on one plane. So one of the strangest aspects of it was how regimented we were. We had an escort who was with us at all times, and everyone who was on the trial went to the base together and then left together at the end. We did about three full days and one half day of trials. I was there for a week; we flew in on a Sunday and then flew out on Saturday. So I think it was just getting used to all the different regulations and different procedures.
The pretrial hearing you saw was for one of the key figures in 9/11. What were your impressions of 9/11 before your trip, and then did your trip change or affect those impressions?
Before this experience and before I came to Human Rights First, I just knew the basics about what happened, and I hadn’t really known about the big guy on trial, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, allegedly the person who planned [the 9/11 attacks]. I hadn’t known he was still on trial, that this whole process was still happening; I thought with the death of Osama bin Laden that it had been a closed book. We’re still figuring out how to prosecute this person and the other people on trial, so I think that the idea of 9/11 as just something that happened in the past was something that really changed.
Some of the people on the plane were family members of people killed on 9/11, and they were brought down to see the trial. One of the other [nongovernmental organizations] that we were down there with was 9/11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows. I didn’t grow up close to the tragedy or the victims, so being [with] the people affected directly was very interesting.
In your observations of the proceedings at Gitmo, do you think the U.S. government is balancing its need to protect national security with its duty to provide a fair trial?
It is clearly a huge struggle there, and there’s an effort to do that, but the issue of torture makes the idea of having a fair trial very difficult. [The U.S.] waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed so many times, and this is a capital trial to put him to death. How do we take their admissions of guilt? What do those amount to? The defense is arguing that we can’t take their admissions of guilt because they were given under torture. And it’s the major moral conundrum of the trial, and it’s unclear watching the proceedings that it will ever be resolved. I think a fair balance would be a complete admission of what was done, and having that taken into account in the process, maybe taking the capital offense off the table. It’s unclear that the prosecution is willing to go there or what that would look like.
On a brighter note, what advice would you give to current Kenyon students thinking about a career in human rights?
One of the key things about working in D.C. is networking — just trying to leverage the Kenyon network, do internships, meet with people. Getting a job in D.C. and getting a job in this field requires just getting yourself out there, not being afraid to take that internship and then trying to leverage those relationships to find more. Meet with as many people as possible, try to get their perspectives, try to expand your network. Sometimes it’s a difficult field for someone coming right out of school, but there’s a lot of cool things happening. Just keep your nose to the grindstone.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.