Why She Did It: Barbara Lee’s Vote Against War
Mr. Sokol is a graduate student in U.S. History at UC-Berkeley. He has written freelance for the Nation, TomPaine.com, Feed.
Five-hundred and eighteen members of Congress voted to extend President Bush the power to use"all necessary and appropriate force" in crafting a military response to the tragedy of September 11. Barbara Lee, a Democratic Representative from California, registered the Capitol’s lone voice of dissent. Almost unanimously, Congress is in tune with those majority of Americans who wish to inflict"justice" on the culprits. From the New York Times to the San Francisco Chronicle, the entire mainstream press supports force. To those bellicose drummers of war, Lee responded,"I am convinced that military action will not prevent further acts of international terrorism against the United States." Lee’s defiant vote gives Americans pause, for it may yet shine as a ray of lucidity amid a chapter of tragic folly.
History is not kind to those who stood against Lincoln’s use of Union troops or Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s decision to fight Hitler. Lee’s words now inhabit a rich pantheon of American protest. In its annals, Thoreau opposed the Mexican War, William James criticized the Spanish-American War, Randolph Bourne and Eugene Debs campaigned against World War I, and figures as disparate as Martin Luther King, Jr., Norman Mailer, Muhammad Ali, and Robert Kennedy raised their voices along with many millions who opposed Vietnam. In Lee’s dissent, she stood up for the best of American ideals and followed Thoreau’s mandate to"vote for a new world with our whole selves all of the time." Peace, like war, can be pursued in the names of patriotism, democracy, and freedom."I have agonized over this vote," Lee said on the House floor."As we act, let us not become the evil that we deplore."
The great waves of grief which have swept up our nation mean nothing if they do not force us to rethink our places in the world -- as Americans, and as humans. For many, the trauma of Tuesday’s attacks will never end. Yet this tragedy can do more than instill in us a vengeance. It can also force us to see with new eyes. Heartless, revolting, callous, abominable -- those words can hardly describe the perpetrators. But fixating on them can end up defeating us. To oppose war is not to show weakness, but to place undying hope in America’s knowledge, resources, compassion, and will. It is to use America’s unparalleled power to find a way to share this world.
11Arguments which seek understanding rather than obliteration are not un-American. They have roots deep in our country’s lore. William James foresaw the conflict behind today’s dilemma when he penned"The Moral Equivalent of War" a century ago."Our ancestors have bred pugnacity into our bone and marrow, and thousands of years of peace won’t breed it out of us," James wrote. The individualistic American ethos teaches that nobody can be trusted. We have internalized our nation’s lesson that it is smarter to build bigger weapons and vaster shields than to court vulnerability in the name of brokering peace. These defensive desires which move us to fight, James argued, can also be transformed for the better."It is only a question of blowing on the spark till the whole population gets incandescent." The tragedy of September 11 lit that spark and placed a rare fire into our collective hands. If the tragedy took many lives, it created a unified American community heretofore unseen. We know its emotive power. We can bomb and strike -- and rally as a nation behind such action. Missiles may even bring terrorists to their knees and scorch the nations that are their sanctuaries. But it will take real courage and power to make that flame glow -- to achieve peace, develop a cooperative diplomacy, and light the whole world anew.
In the tragedy’s wake, lasting change is already apparent. The specter of American invincibility dissolved like the phantom that it was. Perhaps this will bring us to grips with a truth -- that if one human wants to kill another badly enough, is willing to sacrifice his own life to end another’s, little can be done. Of course, the nation should take all precautions to protect its citizens. National defense may be necessary, but it is not sufficient. True protection can only come when Americans begin to get at motivations behind violence. If we do not address the reasons we were attacked, we court further terror. Understanding the fragility of our existence, we see that, far apart from any lofty pacifist principles, war would cost thousands of American lives -- soldiers overseas as well as civilians at home.
Do Americans expect that we can simply smoke out every terrorist before they attack again? War would last years."It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated," said President Bush. How many lives are we willing to sacrifice in the meantime? Actual security -- as opposed to the fabled stuff that lives in lofty rhetoric -- can come only when humans feel as though they cohabit the earth, rather than vie for it.
In the end, we Americans are bound by the prisoner’s dilemma. The other guy can always kill us if he devotes his life to it and is faster on the trigger. Ensnared on this morass, we have but two choices: gain his trust, or kill him first. The former is much more difficult and far more frightening, but it is ultimately the only way to live together.
11It is important that neither peace nor war become unthinking reflexes. Lee’s agony in her decision must be our own. Those who advocate peace should acknowledge that the Taliban is indeed the most reprehensible regime in the world, just as the world would be a better place without those terrorists who America wishes to decimate. But it is possible to see this and still maintain that peace is preferable to war. Some antiwar rhetoric is the stuff of knee-jerk reaction. The impulse for peace may stem out of a deep American tradition of pacifism, but it cannot remain in the past. Those who advocate peace must grapple with the grim realities of this crisis, and urge innovative policies meant to promote the betterment of humanity rather than its end.
11Bush stated that America’s demands on Afghanistan"are not open to negotiation or discussion." He claimed that"they hate...our freedom to...disagree with each other," for"they follow in the path of fascism, Nazism, and totalitarianism." In this trying time, Bush asked that we"uphold the values of America and remember why so many have come here." Bush portrayed a world that existed only in black and white."Every nation...has a decision to make," he declared."Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists."
But Americans today, like politicians and poets before us, know that there are many different ways to uphold American values. While the lessons of past wars are in some ways irrelevant to Operation Infinite Justice and its battle against worldwide terrorism, history can still instruct. It not only shows the futility of guerrilla battle in Vietnam and the internal upheaval such a war can wreak, but it also lends models of leadership, visions of America, episodes of protest, and exercises in democracy which radiate through the centuries. Democracy, at its best, hears many voices. In the Manichean universe Bush painted, there is no sense that other avenues exist. In fact, one can"fight" terrorism without waging war. Rumors abound that even Colin Powell is of this mind. Throughout America’s life as a country, creativity and enterprise have been rewarded. In the Capitol, we need imaginative ways to stamp out hatred and terrorism, not a Congress of closed-minded Yes men."Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war," Bush declared."And we know that God is not neutral between them." What could be more presumptuous and less democratic than a government of elected officials who all see in their decisions the presence of God? In comments like these, democracy and fascism shade into one another -- and together they crush dissent and suffocate debate.
In the midst of an event that has unleashed the worst demons inside us, it is wise to summon, with Bobby Kennedy in 1968 and Abraham Lincoln a century before him,"the better angels of our nature." Of all moments, this must seem the worst time to preach of trust, understanding, peace, and angels. Fire and brimstone better capture the tenor of the hour. But the events of September 11 have touched us all too profoundly for mere retaliation to be their match. If American history shows anything, it reveals that"America" has multiple meanings. The flag is not synonymous with battle,"patriotism" not the same as war. Barbara Lee, along with every member of Congress, lifted her voice and sang"God Bless America" last week. Love for one’s nation does not mean identical visions for it. Barbara Lee’s unique voice reminds those in America and abroad that the desire for war does not pulse through all citizens. In her dissent resides the resurrected American spirit of"honest and earnest criticism" -- what W.E.B. Du Bois called"the soul of democracy and the safeguard of modern society." The true test of American principles is whether we can, with all our resources, willpower, and ingenuity, find a way to share this earth.
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Roger Daniels - 9/27/2001
Mr. Sokol missed, of course, the only appropriate historical parallel to
Congressperson Barbara Lee, Congressperson Jeanette Rankin who voted
against the war declaration in WW I when she had company and in WW II when
she was alone.