The Lone Objector
The eleventh day of September, 2001, shook the bedrock of American strength to its core. Following the murder of nearly 3,000 Americans, emotions ran high. Justice had to be done, no matter who was behind the attacks, where they were, or what it would take. President Bush vowed to "make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them," and called for "all Americans from every walk of life [to] unite in our resolve for justice and peace."
It was unheard of to question any swift, unified resolution proposed; no elected official wanted to end up on the wrong side of history by voting against any proposals that related to the aftermath of the attacks. Dissension was widely viewed as un-American, even though there were many actions that hinged upon the emotions of the people after such a horrific experience.
Once such action was P. L. 107-40, the Authorization for the Use of Military Force. This resolution, hastily drafted immediately after the 9/11 attacks, shifted any initiatives for the declaration of war from the Legislative Branch to the Executive Office. This transferal of power provided a carte blanche for the President (and any Presidents in the future, in relation to any situation) to declare war upon any nation or group by using the argument that the other nation was harboring al-Qaeda members, even if there was no substantial evidence or viable link between the two. The passage of this resolution eventually led to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through faulty, unconfirmed information and premature military action.
A sophomore Representative from Oakland, CA was wary of such an impulsive action that could have numerous consequential, long-term effects. That Congressman was Barbara Lee, and for three days after the attacks she struggled with her vote on the impending resolution, which she called "dangerous" to the United States' future and its citizens for generations to come. She finally found solace and guidance in the words of a clergyman during the memorial service held on September 14th, hours before the House vote: "Let us not become the evil we deplore." Her struggle to find a position on such an important vote was set: she knew immediately that she had to vote against the resolution.
Before the final vote, the Democratic Caucus met to discuss the many other Representatives' concerns over the details and aims of the resolution. Ultimately, however, in spite of the obvious concern over the relinquishment of constitutional powers, none of them could bring themselves to stand up against the tide of the public's demand for retribution or a president's need to demonstrate swift retaliation. When the issue was put forth on the House floor, Lee took her stand and was recognized by the Speaker.
She prefaced her speech by saying "September 11 changed the world. Our deepest fears now haunt us. Yet I am convinced that military action will not prevent further acts of international terrorism against the United States." She then launched into an urgent plea for restraint and patience, stating that "Some of us must urge the use of restraint. There must be some of us who say, let's step back for a moment and think through the implications of our actions today - let us more fully understand their consequences...we must not rush to judgment, for too many innocent people have already died."
She finally vocalized their collective concern over the unmerited and immediate declaration of war by an anxious Executive by warning her fellow Representatives that "we must be careful not to embark on an open-ended war with neither an exit strategy nor a focused target. We cannot repeat past mistakes...I believe that history will record that we have made a grave mistake in subverting and circumventing the Constitution of the United States. I believe that with the next century, future generations will look with dismay and great disappointment upon a Congress which is now about to make such a historic mistake."
Lee knew that the majority of her colleagues would approve the resolution, but she felt compelled to make her voice heard, no matter the consequences. P. L. 107-40 did indeed pass, 518-1, and there were indeed consequences for Lee. Immediately following the vote, other members urged her to "fix" her "mistake," to reverse her vote, to simply follow the rest of the nation in standing behind the President. She refused and stood by her vote, saying later in an op-ed that she "could not vote for a resolution that I believe could lead to such an outcome [the senseless killing of innocent people]." She received hoards of mail from her constituents regarding the vote, some with death threats. As a result, she was provided a security detail from Capitol Police which lasted for three months afterwards.
Congresswoman Lee's action that day fully embodies the outline of political courage John F. Kennedy espoused. She braved "...the risks to [her] career, the unpopularity of [her] course, [and] the defamation of [her] character" to "show the real meaning of courage and a real faith in democracy...[through her] abiding loyalty to [her] nation, [triumphing] over all personal and political considerations." Barbara Lee is a true patriot who stood up for the American people and the values we all keep so close to our hearts. She fought for the cause that had to be fought and voiced that which none had the courage to state. She believed in the idea of America, just as President Kennedy did, and made a valiant, though lonely, stand for that idea, because she knew that America is great not because of "rigid ideological unity and orthodox patterns of thought," but because of the open forum of debate and ideas and the freedom to make such a bold stand for those ideas and one's country.
This piece was originally submitted for the 2013 John F. Kennedy Library Profiles in Courage essay contest.