OAKLAND, Calif.—The people here were out of step with America.
In the hours after the attacks of September 11, 2oo1, they were angry at the terrorists who flew planes into the Pentagon and World Trade Center. They wanted the attackers brought to justice. They mourned the victims, cheered the firefighters, felt united in sorrow with their countrymen, and dreaded more attacks. But in Berkeley, Oakland, and Alameda, the ultra-liberal, historically anti-war East Bay communities, a significant bloc also feared how their country would react. They didn't trust the instincts of George W. Bush or the public that elected him.
The mistrust was mutual.
"The middle part of the country—the great red zone that voted for Bush—is clearly ready for war," Andrew Sullivan wrote that week in a Sunday newspaper column. "The decadent left in its enclaves on the coasts is not dead—and may well mount a fifth column." The liberals of Berkeley and its environs had long been regarded as naive pacifists at best. There were, in fact, pacifists who lived there. For the most part, however, East Bay residents would favor hunting down the perpetrators of 9/11. What worried them, even as smoke rose from the ruins at Ground Zero, was that America's judgment would be clouded by fear, anger, and lust for vengeance; that we would lash out recklessly, killing innocents; and that we would strategize foolishly, overestimating the threat posed by terrorism and the degree to which foreign wars could reduce it. Majority opinion was calling for "unity" in a war on terror. East Bay liberals stood athwart history yelling, "Stop!"
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Barbara Lee began representing the East Bay in Congress on April 7, 1998. She'd grown up in Texas and then California, a move owing to the job of her father, Garvin Alexander Tutt, a lieutenant colonel in the Army. She attended Mills College, a liberal-arts school in Oakland, where she volunteered with the Black Panther Party. She later earned a masters degree at the University of California, Berkeley. Her memoir describes both a divorce and an anguished decision to have an abortion. In red state nightmares, Congress is composed entirely of Barbara Lees.
Lee was 55 on the morning of September 11, 2001. As she fled the U.S. Capitol building, she saw smoke rising from what she later learned was the Pentagon. In the next 48 hours she voted for a number of bills. "One condemned the terrorist attacks," she recalled in her memoir, "extended condolences to victims and their families, commended rescue workers, supported the determination of the President—in close consultation with Congress—to find justice for the victims and to punish the perpetrators and sponsors." There was more: "We decreed September 12 a national day of unity and mourning and a second decree expressed the sense of the Congress that Americans should fly the American flag. A third sped the payment of benefits to families of public safety officers killed or injured in the attacks and a fourth provided tax relief to the victims of the attacks. We provided $40 billion in emergency funding for increased public safety, antiterrorism activities, disaster recovery efforts, and assistance for the victims."
Like most Americans, she felt a powerful sense of national unity. In her capacity as a legislator, she believed continuing unity with the president was desirable, even after the Bush administration sent legislators the text of an Authorization for Use of Military Force, or AUMF, that the White House wanted Congress to pass.
The final draft of the AUMF was just 60 words long:
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.
Inside the Democratic caucus, legislators discussed what they regarded as the importance of emphasizing to the country "that we were united and nonpartisan," Lee states in her memoir. But she wasn't alone in worrying that the AUMF was too broad and could authorize military action far beyond anything Congress was anticipating at the time, much like the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. Voting "yea" would, she felt, give President Bush and his successors "a blank check to attack an unspecified country, an unspecified enemy for an unspecified period of time." To vote nay would break the U.S. government's united front.
Lee anguished over how to vote. The Senate soon approved the AUMF 98 to zero. In the House, it passed 420 to 1. Lee was surprised and startled to be the only "nay," but she didn't doubt her decision. Years before, she'd fought to become the only black cheerleader at her college. In the California legislature, she cast one of the few votes against an extremely popular "three strikes" law, warning it would lead to over-incarceration and subject people to life in prison for minor crimes. She didn't consider reversing her position, even as colleagues warned her that she'd lose her seat over an objection that wouldn't even change the AUMF. A batch of death threats didn't faze her either—she'd gotten them before.
She explained her vote in remarks delivered on the House floor:
Lee would keep explaining her reasoning in greater detail many times in subsequent weeks, months, and years. A recent episode of RadioLab features clips of her doing so in her own voice. Host Jad Abumrad mentioned in passing that the thousands of letters Lee received after her lone dissent are now archived at her alma mater, Mills College. I made an appointment and traveled to the Special Collections room at the school's F.W. Olin Library to see what the letters say.
They fill 12 file-storage boxes.
It isn't clear how many thousands of letters there are. No one has counted. But they're sorted as follows: seven boxes contain letters expressing support for Lee's vote; four boxes hold letters expressing disapproval; a final box contains some of each. (There is also an effort to note whether letters came from inside the district or not.)
A librarian gave me access to one box of supportive letters and one box of critical letters. They weren't otherwise sorted by content, so the sample I saw was theoretically random. In the five hours of access I had, I read as many as possible. As a condition of access, I agreed to refrain from publishing any names or addresses, and to protect identities I wasn't allowed to photograph or scan the correspondence, so I took notes, choosing representative passages as best I could. That part was easier than I anticipated. Obvious themes recurred in each box, though Lee's supporters and critics seemed to agree on just one thing: both predicted that her vote would cost her any chance at winning reelection to Congress.
They were both wrong—she's still there.
* * *
Surveying the letters from Lee's supporters, one prominent theme that emerges is opposition to harming or killing faraway innocents, whether in Afghanistan or the Muslim world generally. The core belief being expressed was that foreign nationals are endowed with an inalienable right to life that they do not forfeit just because someone who shares their religion or nationality perpetrated mass murder.
A U.S. Army veteran expressed his belief that "we should punish the perpetrators of this atrocious act" but added, "I am against shedding the blood of those not guilty of a crime. I will include America's children as well as those of other nations in that declaration." At first, "I did not want justice," he wrote. "I wanted revenge." Then he realized "much of that will be the blood of innocents ... I thought our country was different. Do we not allow our citizens the right of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Are our people not innocent until proven guilty? Why do we not extend these rights to people outside of our borders?"
Said another writer, "I worry that amid the anger arising from this week's attack, our representatives will be swayed to ignore their moral compasses and go in search of an enemy that may prove very elusive. And I worry that more innocent people—in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Pakistan—will fall victim under U.S. anti-terrorism initiatives."
A third noted, "I too do not want the terrorists to get away with these evil deeds," adding, "To combat terrorism, let's act in accordance with a high standard that does not disregard the lives of people in other countries. If we retaliate by bombing Kabul and kill people oppressed by the Taliban dictatorship who have no part in deciding whether terrorists are harbored, we become like the terrorists."
Another common sentiment concerned what many felt to be the imprudence of rushing to war. "While we all oppose terrorism, a more tempered, well-tailored response is needed than to write a blank check to the president for waging war in unknown places, against unknown adversaries, and at unknown costs," one stated, echoing the congresswoman's own words. "You have my support and my vote."
A likeminded note added, "We should be thinking soberly about strategically effective actions to prevent further terrorist attacks, not plunging headfirst into a crusade for bloody revenge against an ill-defined enemy that we will never successfully battle using traditional military methods. I stand in horror at what this government, which is supposed to represent me and my fellow citizens, is talking about doing." The note thanked Lee for her commitment to finding "an appropriate solution to this problem, rather than a politically expedient and viscerally gratifying one."
Another correspondent wrote: "I don't see the unilateral bombing of any country in an effort to extract terrorists as a solution. Do we not think that Afghanistan will be just as outraged as we are should their civilians die unnecessarily? Wouldn't any country?"
A few correspondents insulted the American majority. "It must have been among the hardest things you have ever done in your life," one stated, "to stand up in the face of all that jingoism and redneckery." Many correspondents simply thanked Lee, while others praised particular qualities like "courage," voting one's conscience, or simply perceiving the situation as they perceived it themselves. "Yours is the voice of reason during this momentary lapse of reason," one letter said. Another stated, "Your words are exactly what I longed to hear and feared would forever miss. You give me back my own resolve to speak out with courage."
Said a third:
Thank you for having the courage to stand up before your colleagues, the nation and the world and speak your conscience. Thank you for giving us the courage to voice our concerns about going to war so quickly. Thank you for reminding us to listen to our hearts, our consciences, and to adhere to our moral beliefs. I keep hearing Amazing Grace played at services, on TV, and in my head, and I know that we must also be certain to pray and allow God's grace to work among us.
For those who felt differently than Bush and a majority of Americans, Lee provided a glimmer of hope that the whole world wasn't crazy, as letters like this one expressed:
If I were in Berkeley right now, I would be organizing, speaking out, doing something to try to stop this madness. Being outside of the country, I have felt a terrible sense of powerlessness. After reading about the vote authorizing the use of force yesterday I felt a chill pass through me. When I found out you were the sole voice of reason, I felt a tiny arrow of hope pierce my heart ....
In these days of grief there seems to be madness afoot. Far too many people have been swept up by their anger and have lost touch with their basic faculties of judgment and the very principles on which this nation was founded. At the head of this outraged lynch-mob, bent on vengeance over justice at all costs, is a president more than half our nation did not elect. A president who routinely humiliates and shames us.
Many locals expressed pride in being represented by the one nay vote in Congress, some adding that they were proud of what it said about the East Bay community.
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.
Other letters reassured Lee that she wasn't alone. "I am a military academy graduate and served five years as an infantry officer in the U.S. Marine Corps," one said. "I am employed as a Deputy District Attorney. Because of that background and current employment, I am probably not one who would normally be perceived as inclined to agree with your decision. Please know that there are many of us who stand proudly by you as committed citizens and patriotic Americans."
"In personal conversations, in classrooms, at work, we all feel the pressure to express our grief, confusion, and love in acceptable ways lest we be viewed as unfeeling, unpatriotic, unAmerican," one correspondent wrote. "Courageous acts like yours widen the definition for all of us, giving us room to be world citizens, to express our pain and fear for all humans, and hopefully, inspire us to think beyond our borders." The longest letter of that sort that I encountered shared a deeply personal story:
As an American Jew, the situation has been very complicated for me for a long time. These events, including your lone vote, have pushed me to take what is, for me, a risk and leap of faith. Although I have long agreed ... that the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and half of Jerusalem should be returned and a separate Palestinian state created, I have been reluctant to take that position publicly, participate in demonstrations, etc. I have been reluctant because of anti-semitism that I have encountered during conversations, in literature, and in interviews with some who espouse that position. And because, in my gut, to take that position publicly feels like a betrayal of my people, even as I know that I profoundly disagree with those of "my people" who now govern Israel. But, pushed by these unspeakable times, and inspired by people like you, I know that if ever there was time to take a risk, to "speak truth to power," it is now.
That notion of loyalty to one's tribe or people would emerge again and again in the letters expressing opposition to Lee's vote. Let's forge ahead into some excerpts.
* * *
One of the very first letters I read expressing opposition to Lee's position elevated my hope that I'd find lots of high-quality correspondence in that batch. The writer had a visceral reaction to reading news of the congresswoman's nay vote, got up from the breakfast table overcome with nausea, and later wrote this letter:
I watched the news unfold all day Tuesday. I reassured my kids that they will be safe because our government will protect us from threats. I wept while singing "God Bless America" at the Kofman Auditorium last night. I walked past my neighbors bearing candles as I made my way to that Auditorium. I convinced myself yesterday that things were going to be alright. I sit in front of my computer this morning embarrassed and saddened that you, alone, do not sense the severity of the threat our country faces. If things are ultimately "alright," it will be in spite of rather than because of you.
I am 38 years old. I was five months old when John F. Kennedy was killed ... 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 am a peaceful person, Ms. Lee, but I am also a parent. I abhor violence, guns, and war. I also abhor bullies. The people who wreaked this havoc on our country are bullies, and I sense the very real threat that they pose to my children. Mothers and fathers in Alameda feel the way that I do. We will do everything and anything to protect our children from harm. If that means that we have to wage a war to stop bullies, then we are willing to do so. History has shown that zealots who believe they have a manifest destiny to rule can be stopped only by force. We don't have to look too far back to see that—Hitler, Mussolini, Hirohito. Peaceful negotiations meant nothing to these men, and they will mean nothing to the terrorist leaders who killed thousands on Tuesday.
We must use force against these terrorists!
I am not politically inclined. I am a Cub Scout leader, a soccer mom, a pre-school teacher, a friend, a wife and a Catholic. My kids go to a public school; my car is 10 years old and needs a new transmission. I generally find my days more than adequately full juggling the realities of life. Even as I write this, there is laundry to be done and a child to dress for soccer. Suddenly, I realize that I must become political or sacrifice all that I hold dear. I vow today to make my voice heard. I will write to all of my friends and neighbors and tell them of your cowardice and poor judgment. I will be on the streets reminding them of this moment when you return to Alameda to ask for our vote again. I will trust that the other legislators will overwhelm you and continue to behave courageously until I have the chance to remove you from your office with my vote. until that time, please know this, Ms. Lee. You do not, under any circumstances, represent me or my family. You are an embarrassment to our fair city.
Like many, this writer misunderstands the meaning of a vote against the AUMF. Lee wasn't saying no to any use of force against terrorists—rather, she was averse to giving the president authority so broad that it could be used to launch any number of wars. But that criticism turned out to be among the most thoughtful I saw.
Here's a selection of more typical fare—a depressing glimpse at the ugliest side of America:
- "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."
- "Your treachery rivals that of Jane Fonda's infamous visit to Hanoi. We haven't forgotten Jane, and we won't forget you."
- "To the Dishonorable Barbara Lee: You should strap yourself to the front of the first cruise missile launched. You should be put on trial for treason and punished to the full extent of the law."
- "You are a dog. Not even an American dog, a black mutt."
- "Perhaps you should be rounded up and held as a sympathizer with the terrorists. You are a disgrace."
- "Regarding your lone dissent, the terrorists used God as an excuse. Is it true 'God' helped you make your decision, too? Congratulations on using terrorist mentality! You represent people, not God. If you can't handle your job, go work in a church. You will never be re-elected."
- "Hey Barb, do us all a favor and find another country to live in, like Pakistan! Maybe after being forced to hide your face in public and maybe after having all your freedoms stripped from you, you will come back and support this government and our president!"
- "Black people across America have come together to be as one with their fellow Americans—are you so out of touch, by being the lone voice you have done nothing for the African American cause. May you reap what you sow."
- "I hope you get voted out of office and that you and your family lives the rest of your lives in shame. It doesn't matter if military action stops terrorism or not. The terrorists are going to hit us anyway, so we might as well try."
- "What if Arabs killed 5,000 people in Oakland? I'd say too bad. I would tell my congressman not to support you and your sorry constituents."
- "Go to hell you communist! I hope your constituents remember this come election time!"
- "Do you think this somehow sets you apart or makes you special? It does not... It shows the entire country, and most especially the people of your district, what a frivolous, self-centered person you are... You crass, selfish politician."
- "Why am I not surprised that this stupid woman is the LONE DISSENTER? Whassamatter? Not enough blacks killed in this tragedy to fire up your emotions? You are a disgrace to your constituents and your race. you should be dragged to the Pentagon and made to dig for bodies in the rubble. Get real!! This is WAR, honey, not a garden party! I pray for you and may God have mercy on you."
- "If you don't like America, GET OUT! We'll be better off without you."
That encompasses the prevailing message Lee received from the American majority.
You've no doubt noticed the "with us or against us" theme running through these letters. ("You are either with the free world, or you are with the terrorists," one correspondent wrote. "You made your choice that you wish the terrorists to prevail.") It brought to mind moral philosopher Jonathan Haidt's observation that red America places a much higher value on group loyalty than blue America (though plenty of angry letters like that came from blue states and Democrats). Angry correspondents watched the AUMF pass the House 420 to 1, an overwhelming margin, then felt so upset and threatened by the lone nay to take the time, as the World Trade Center smoldered, to write the lone dissenter an apoplectic letter, declaring her a worthless traitor (while purportedly standing for unity).
Intolerance for dissent is seldom so naked in this country.
Recalling those months, which he experienced in Manhattan, Damon Linker recently wrote: "I was so fearful in those days that I actually expressed regret to a friend that the fourth plane had failed to destroy the White House. The thing I feared most in those initial weeks after the attacks, you see, was that we would hesitate in striking back against our enemies. I wanted assurance of our national resolve, and I thought that nothing short of a vision of the White House in ruins would guarantee it. I'm not proud that I had such thoughts and fears. But I wasn't the only one." Some people who feared that America wouldn't rouse itself to a sufficient defense against terrorism found a personification of their fears in Lee.
They hurled many insults that made no sense, calling her "a coward" or "gutless," for example, as if it required any courage to side with literally everyone else.
It was an irrational moment–an emotional moment–but even some rational letter writers who understood why Lee voted as she did regarded it as a personal failure.
Many saw solidarity as a duty in which Lee was derelict. "Your reason for your NO vote was that you believed that it gave too much power to the President," one wrote. "During these times, we must all do what is best for the country, and not try to make a name for ourselves or try to make a statement about a technicality in our system that will have no bearing on the final outcome of this battle for freedom."
The normal rules did not apply.
To break unity for any reason was seen as selfish or political: "America is changing before my eyes. Agendas have given way to selfless brotherhood. Heroes and leaders are being borne of rubble. Maybe those who purvey agendas won't be long for our political landscape." Many could not conceive that Lee cast her vote earnestly: "Yes, dissent is a valuable American tradition, but your dissent is based not on principle but purely on the partisan politics that have weakened America and made it such an attractive target for terrorists. You voted as you did because you have more antipathy towards George W. Bush than against Osama bin Laden."
The need to cast her as an enemy of America ran so deep in some writers that they not only denounced the ostensible harm she was doing to the war effort, they went so far as to blame her for the attacks themselves. "I am definitely a liberal American, but A LINE MUST BE DRAWN," one wrote. "I will end this abruptly... but understand this, your politically correct way of life killed 5,000 Americans."
* * *
If I had to choose just one letter to sum up the critiques of Lee's vote against the AUMF, I'd pick the one excerpted below, for it does a better job than most gesturing at why the writer believes a lone nay vote could harm to America:
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. We are a chain and like a chain if one link is broken, the chain is useless. Rapid response and immediate action is required in these kinds of situations. Why do you refuse to unite with the rest of us? Why do you go against us? People like you make the struggle against terrorism more of a struggle. We have tried pleading, talking, understanding with terrorism and it hasn't worked. It is time to bare teeth, take sword in hand and slay that plague of peaceful society.
Do you not hear the voices of those lying in the rubble of NYC? They cry out for help. For most it is too late to help. Without choice they were flung into the center of the chaos and were taken from this world, from their loved ones. We hear their cries of agony and despair, we feel their pain of lost hope. We hear them! They do not bespeak revenge; but, we do! We want resolve, we want unity and we want the rest of the world to know that we are a nation undivided and standing together of one mind and spirit. A body determined to rid the world of the scourge of terrorism forever. Your one vote can only be viewed as an attempt on your part to break our spirit. I weep because even with this you have chosen to add ever more turmoil within our nation.
The writer engages in a kind of fantasy: If only Americans were all of one mind, we'd be stronger—as if any country worth living in, let alone a country of 300 million spanning a 3,000-mile-wide continent, could ever achieve unanimity of opinion; as if the House of Representatives were a body intended for such a farce!
To see how little war efforts are impeded by lone dissents in the House, one need only think back on the attack on Pearl Harbor, the major impetus for a declaration of war on Japan that kicked off the most unified military effort in U.S. history. I'd wager that few or none of the writers lambasting Lee for her vote knew that while the Senate of 1941 passed the Declaration of War 82 to 0, the vote in the House was 388 to 1. Did the enemy care? Does any reader know that dissenting legislator's name and the effect she had on the war? There is a reason for that.
Representative Lee deserves to be better remembered by history, because so many of her reasons for voting against the AUMF have been vindicated by subsequent events. Even President Obama has asserted that the United States will endanger itself if Congress waits too long to repeal the AUMF. Gallup reports that a majority of Americans now view the Afghanistan War as a mistake. The AUMF later enabled missile strikes that killed many hundreds of innocent civilians, including children, in multiple countries, with unclear implications for counterterrorism, just as Lee and many of her constituents feared and predicted.
Last year, Senator Dick Durbin argued not only that the AUMF no longer served America's needs, but said, “None of us, not one who voted for it, could have envisioned we were voting for the longest war in American history or that we were about to give future presidents the authority to fight terrorism as far flung as Yemen and Somalia. I don’t think any of us envisioned that possibility.” But at least one legislator did. She wrote in The San Francisco Chronicle on September 26, 2001:
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.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Lee's story is how little credit she or her constituents receive for what they got right. Even though a majority now considers the war most understood the AUMF to authorize 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 have 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. And the people who utterly failed to anticipate the trajectory of the War on Terrorism? Even those who later voted for a war in Iraq that turned out to be among the most catastrophic in U.S. history are considered sober, trustworthy experts.
People whose plan was to install Western democracies in Afghanistan and Iraq–even today, they're the ones who aren't considered naive, and that's even true in the Democratic Party, where the vice-president, the last two secretaries of state, and the secretary of defense were all supporters of the AUMF and the Iraq War. Lee and many letter writers who supported her were far more prescient in their analysis than Hillary Clinton or John McCain. Try telling the average American that many Berkeley liberals were more correct about the War on Terror than those two. They'll laugh in your face, even if they personally supported and now oppose those two wars. Many Americans have grappled with their mistaken positions. But how many of those people now take Lee's foreign policy analysis seriously?
The stand she took on September 14, 2001, is still being vindicated.
Even now, the AUMF gives the White House a free hand to wage war in many countries, just as Lee predicted. And last week, the Obama administration cited the September 14, 2001, AUMF to justify war in Syria without seeking or receiving permission from Congress. The target, ISIS, is a group that did not exist for years after 9/11, one that is explicitly separate from and antagonistic toward al-Qaeda.
In taking this action, Obama is calling for unity.
"I believe we are strongest as a nation when the President and Congress work together... to show the world that Americans are united in confronting this danger," he said. But Americans are not united. And pressuring Congress to fabricate consensus does not strengthen America, it weakens us, as any student of the recent past should know–especially one who won the presidency touting his opposition to a "stupid" war. Had there been even more dissenters like Lee 13 years ago, had her tiny minority's warnings been heeded, we'd be stronger today.
Whether offered in the bromides of Obama's speeches or the ugly rants of Lee's critics, calls for unanimity have no place in a pluralistic, representative democracy. For all who believe that a president is in error, dissent is patriotic—and useful.
Letters on this article are encouraged. Write firstname.lastname@example.org with feedback, insights, praise, critiques, damnation, or apologies to Barbara Lee for angry missives written way back when.