Yesterday was the 15th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and elsewhere and there were many commemorations of that somber occasion. But it is also good to remember that it generated a period of mass fear and hysteria in the US that has resulted in endless, cruel, and needless wars, and accelerated a massive increase in the powers of the national security state and severe erosions on people’s privacy and civil liberties, all in the name of fighting terrorism.
Those neoconservatives and others in the administration of George W. Bush who wanted to push their imperial agendas wasted no time in exploiting this tragedy to their advantage under the cover of patriotism and rushed through their Authorization of Military Force Act legislation just three days after the attack, suggesting that they had it in reserve and were just waiting for a good time to bring it forward. Almost all elected representatives were so cowed by the fear of being called unpatriotic and weak on terror that they capitulated.
But not all.
Glenn Greenwald reminds of congresswoman Barbara Lee who represents Oakland, CA who was the lone dissenter against the AUMF that passed the House of representatives by a margin of 420-1 and the Senate 98-0.
You can watch her very brief (90 seconds) but eloquent and prophetic speech explaining her vote.
She published an op-ed nine days later, no doubt to explain her actions more fully, because she was widely reviled and attacked for her vote. In it she said:
Some believe this resolution was only symbolic, designed to show national resolve. But I could not ignore that it provided explicit authority, under the War Powers Resolution and the Constitution, to go to war.
It was a blank check to the president to attack anyone involved in the Sept. 11 events — anywhere, in any country, without regard to our nation’s long-term foreign policy, economic and national security interests, and without time limit. In granting these overly broad powers, the Congress failed its responsibility to understand the dimensions of its declaration. I could not support such a grant of war-making authority to the president; I believe it would put more innocent lives at risk.
We must respond, but the character of that response will determine for us and for our children the world that they will inherit. I do not dispute the president’s intent to rid the world of terrorism — but we have many means to reach that goal, and measures that spawn further acts of terror or that do not address the sources of hatred do not increase our security.
Secretary of State Colin Powell himself eloquently pointed out the many ways to get at the root of this problem — economic, diplomatic, legal and political, as well as military. A rush to launch precipitous military counterattacks runs too great a risk that more innocent men, women, children will be killed. I could not vote for a resolution that I believe could lead to such an outcome.
As Greenwald says:
For her lone stance, Lee was deluged with rancid insults and death threats to the point where she needed around-the-clock bodyguards. She was vilified as “anti-American” by numerous outlets including the Wall Street Journal. The Washington Times editorialized on September 18 that “Ms. Lee is a long-practicing supporter of America’s enemies — from Fidel Castro on down” and that “while most of the left-wing Democrats spent the week praising President Bush and trying to sound as moderate as possible, Barbara Lee continued to sail under her true colors.” Since then, she has been repeatedly rejected in her bids to join the House Democratic leadership, typically losing to candidates close to Wall Street and in support of militarism. I documented numerous other ugly attacks when I wrote about her for The Guardian in 2013.
But beyond the obvious bravery needed to take the stand she took, she has been completely vindicated on the merits. Close to a majority of Americans now believes that the first war the AUMF was invoked to launch — the one in Afghanistan — was a mistake. Fifteen years later, the very same AUMF continues to be used by the Obama administration for all sorts of wars that plainly have nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks — including its newfound bombing partnership with Russia in Syria. Under this resolution, Obama has bombed seven predominantly Muslim countries in seven years.
Lee has never given up on this cause, repeatedly attempting to lead a repeal of the AUMF, though — in the face of opposition from two successive administrations, one from each party — she has never been able to convince her colleagues to do so. While her “blank check” warning turned out to be incredibly prescient, the other warning she issued, from the House floor on September 14, was even more profound: “Let us not become the evil we deplore.”
The 9/11 attack killed close to 3,000 innocent people, but the 15 years of wars, bombings, invasions, occupations, and other abuses it spawned — the bulk of which are still raging — have killed many, many more than that. Americans love to memorialize the victims of the 9/11 attacks, though the abundant victims of their own government’s actions (both leading up to 9/11 and in response to it) are typically ignored. Whatever else 9/11 is used to commemorate, Barbara Lee’s visionary warnings and solitary courage should always be near the top of that list.
History has vindicated Lee even if the general public has not recognized it yet. It has similarly vindicated then senator Russell Feingold (D-Wisconsin) who was the sole dissenter in the US Senate against the abominable and abominably named USA PATRIOT Act. (Lee was one of 66 House members to vote against that bill.) Feingold subsequently lost his Wisconsin senate seat in 2010 but is hoping to regain it in November.
We should also remember Senators Wayne Morse (D-Oregon) and Ernest Gruening (D-Alaska) who were the only two senators who stood up to president Lyndon Johnson when he rushed through the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in 1964 that gave him a similar blank check to wage war in Vietnam, again with disastrous results and a horrendous number of deaths and suffering, not just in that country but in neighboring Cambodia and Laos as well where the US rained down massive amounts of chemical and biological weapons that have residual effects even today.