To say that people were angry after 9/11 would be a slight understatement. Driven by fear of more attacks, and with their way of life under threat, white-knuckled Americans were united: they wanted justice... and revenge. In the days after the attacks, a series of bills were passed by congress condemning the perpetrators. One bill, however, was far from symbolic. The “Authorisation for Use of Military Force” (AUMF) might have only been 60 words long, but it authorised President George ‘Double-yeh’ Bush and future presidents to “use all necessary and appropriate force against those” that “planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001... in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States”.
Barbara Lee, representing East Bay California, was the only member of congress to vote against the bill. While keen to punish the perpetrators, she was worried by how open-ended and ambiguous the bill was. She felt it would give President Bush and his successors “a blank check to attack an unspecified country, an unspecified enemy for an unspecified period of time”.
Despite predictions she would never be elected again (which proved unfounded—she’s still in congress), Lee was the sole “nay”. A trillion dollars and more than a decade later, Lee looks much more prescient in her analysis than any other congressperson on September 14, 2001. With the Coalition of the Willing’s recent return to Iraq, her position is still being vindicated—but strangely not recognised:
Even though a majority now considers the war to be a mistake; even though it has been used to justify military interventions that no one conceived of on September 14, 2001; even though there’s no proof that any war-making of the last 13 years has made us safer; even though many more Americans have died in wars of choice than have been killed in terrorist attacks; even though Lee and many of her constituents were amenable to capturing or killing the 9/11 perpetrators, not pacifists intent on ruling out any use of force; despite all of that, Representative Lee is still thought of as a fringe peacenik representing naive East Bay hippies who could never be trusted to guide U.S. foreign policy.
Journalist Conor Friedersdorf inspected 12 file storage boxes of letters Lee received in the weeks and months after the controversial vote. Almost all of the letters that Friedersdorf read supporting Lee’s controversial decision were passionate, articulate and well-reasoned. While many people wanted justice, they praised Lee for her sensibility and caution. They were hesitant to see Afghanis or Muslims killed in the name of American counter-terrorism. Many expressed pride.
Thank you for having the courage to dissent today. While everyone else is too afraid to stop, think, and take a moral stand—being too swept up in xenophobic fervor and low-populist patriotism—you are representing well the people of the East Bay, people no less patriotic or American for thinking that the rhetoric and path of war are not the best ways to seek justice for this week’s atrocity.
Those in opposition to Lee were mostly aggressive, offering “a depressing glimpse at the ugliest side of America”. They carried a strong “you’re with us or against us” theme. (“You are either with the free world, or you are with the terrorists,” one correspondent wrote.)
You should have been in the Trade Towers you anti-American Bitch. Drop dead!!!
You do not stand alone in evil—you stand with Bin Laden & Hitler & Judas.
Some, however, were emotive and articulate, communicating the visceral fear most Americans felt post-9/11:
I have never in my life experienced a threat as terrifying and sobering as the threat we face today. I am convinced that we are in a historical moment. Perhaps you were thinking that when you cast your vote. Did you hope to go down as the sole pacifist in a sea of war-mongers? If so, you missed the mark. You will go down in history as the sole coward in a sea of courageous legislators.
I can understand concern about too much presidential power. But now is the time for unity, resolve and action, not reasoning. Reasoning does not work with fanatics. Do you not hear the voices of those lying in the rubble of NYC? They cry out for help...
Friedersdorf leaves amazed at how little credit Lee or her constituents received for getting it right in the most emotionally heightened circumstances imaginable. Calls for unanimity, he argues, “have no place in a pluralistic, representative democracy”. Barbara Lee has shown us that dissent is patriotic—and useful.
Future Perfect's Slow Reading offers a synoptic look at the best of longform journalism