Barbara Lee (D-CA)

Lessons From Barbara Lee

Luca Brown
Sep 11 · 5 min read

Today marks eighteen years since the attacks of September 11th, 2001. I was four when 9/11 took place, and I have not known a world that was not profoundly shaped by it.

Just three days after 9/11, the United States Congress passed the Authorization of Unilateral Military Force (AUMF), which gave the office of the President (then occupied by George Bush) nearly unlimited power to wage war on terrorism across the world. The text of the AUMF quite literally states that “the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.”

George W. Bush stands at podium after authorizing the use of force in Iraq in 2002

The AUMF, and the sweeping powers it grants the President, has remained in effect since 9/11, and has been used by successive Presidents to conduct military operations across Africa, East Asia, and the Middle East with virtually no Congressional oversight, and without any public debate about the horrors of war.

The AUMF passed unanimously in the Senate, and almost completely unanimously in the House of Representatives. I say almost unanimously because of the 431 seats in the House, only one person, a Democrat from California’s 9th district, voted against the AUMF. Her name is Barbara Lee. Video and text of her speech can be found below:

Barbara Lee’s post-9/11 speech on the House Floor

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.

[…] However difficult this vote may be, 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. Our country is in mourning. If we rush to launch a counterattack, we run too great a risk that woman, children, and other non-combatants will be caught in the crossfire.

Nor can we let our justified anger over these outrageous acts by vicious murderers inflame prejudice against all Arab Americans, Muslim, Southeast Asians, and any other people because of their race, religion, or ethnicity.

Finally, 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 […] As a member of the clergy so eloquently said, “As we act, let us not become the evil that we deplore.”

Lee’s words have been written about at length in the years following the start of the War on Terror. Their prescience resonates today not only because Lee was correct in her assessment of what was, up until that point, an unthinkable tragedy, but also because they represent extreme bravery in the face of evil. Not only did Lee — a black woman — argue that the United States should pause and think before it acted, but she also did so alone, on the floor of the United States House of Representatives.

The evil to which she stood up was not only the provocation by a terrorist organization, but also the rush by the Bush administration to exploit a crisis in order to bloat the powers of the Presidency. As Lee had pointed out, there should be a response to the mass murder of nearly 3,000 people, but any response should be measured and thoughtful, with an understanding of the consequences that such a response would entail. Though Congress may have been reeling from a national trauma, it should not have made the rash decision to abdicate its obligation to carefully consider embarking into a war, and its constitutional right to declare one. Instead, it gave the President the ability to wage more war, to cause more suffering, and to engender similar traumas across the world.

President Barack Obama also invoked the AUMF in order to deploy US troops in six nations

Lee’s opposition to AUMF was rooted in her background in social work. She argues quite correctly that individuals should not make consequential decisions when they are afraid: “you don’t [make decisions] in the heat of emotion, in fear. Because you’re always going to make the wrong decision if you’re doing stuff based on fear.” In fact, research shows that as we enter into states of fear, it becomes more difficult for our brains to effectively weight consequences, to plan, and to rationally process events. Therefore, in states of fear, we often make rash decisions without effectively understanding the significance of our words and actions.

In a world where every event is expected to be immediately met with a quick-witted utterance on Twitter, Barbara Lee serves as a helpful reminder of the importance of caution. Not all traumatic events deserve immediate responses. In fact, given the nature of trauma, such decisions are probably better made after a period of reflection, especially if these decisions bear upon the lives of millions of people across the globe. As I stated at the beginning of this piece, I have not known a world in which “terrorism” was not the watchword, nor have I known a world in which we reflexively choose to wage peace instead of war. I hope that as we continue to meditate on our moments of grief, both individually and collectively, we will make decisions befitting us as human beings.

Since AUMF was passed in 2001, Lee has continued to introduce legislation that would end it. This year, the House passed a bill that included a provision to end the AUMF, though it has not passed in the Senate.

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