Rep. Barbara Lee agonized over her vote, she said later, until that morning, when the California Democrat listened to the prayer of one of the country’s most prominent clergymen.
It was three days after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and like nearly every other member of Congress, she was attending a memorial service at the National Cathedral. In his opening invocation, the dean of the cathedral, Rev. Nathan Baxter, said, “Let us also pray for divine wisdom as our leaders consider the necessary actions for national security, wisdom of the grace of God, that as we act we not become the evil we deplore.”
When she quoted him on the House floor later that day to explain her vote against giving the president a broad, open-ended authorization for military force, she was called a terrorist, a traitor and close to treasonous. The House vote was 420-1. The Senate vote was 98-0.
Twenty years, countless lives and more than a trillion dollars later, as the Biden administration ends the longest conflict in U.S. history, many are looking anew at Lee’s lone vote against the measure that gave the president nearly unlimited power to wage war in Afghanistan or against anyone else involved with or harboring terrorists.
Then-Sen. Joe Biden voted for it. So did then-Rep. Bernie Sanders, who later became one of the most vocal critics of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Rep. John Lewis , D-Ga., long known as an activist who believed in nonviolence, voted for it, too – though he seemed to regret it almost immediately, telling The Washington Post he was “probably 99 percent of the way there in my heart and my soul,” but that he “wanted to send the strongest possible message that we can’t let terrorism stand.”
Lee said later she was surprised to realize she was the only member of Congress to vote against it, and that is evident in her speech on the House floor explaining her decision.
“However difficult this vote may be, some of us must urge the use of restraint. Our country is in a state of mourning. Some of us must say, ‘Let’s step back for a moment, let’s just pause, just for a minute, and think through the implications of our actions today, so that this does not spiral out of control.'”
“Some of us” turned out to be just her.
The reaction to her vote was furious, reflecting the strong emotions of the day. The Wall Street Journal called her a “clueless liberal” and asked if she was anti-American. The Washington Times called her “a long-practicing supporter of America’s enemies.” The phones in her office were turned off after they were flooded with calls, The Post wrote, and she received so many death threats that for a time she had a police detail protecting her.
She also received thousands of letters, both in support and opposition, that are now housed at Mills College. In 2014, The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf went through two of the 12 boxes of letters and found comments like these:
“You should have been in the Trade Towers you anti-American [expletive]. Drop dead!!!”
“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.”
“You are a dog. Not even an American dog, a black mutt.”
“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 do not stand alone in evil – you stand with Bin Laden & Hitler & Judas.”
Lee spent weeks explaining her vote in op-eds and interviews. She wasn’t a pacifist, she said, and she wasn’t against President George W. Bush responding to the terrorist attacks with military force. But she thought it was an abdication of Congress’s power to declare war, and she didn’t want to give a president a “blank check” to start a war with no fixed goal or end date.
She cited Sens. Wayne Morse, D-Ore., and Ernest Gruening, D-Alaska, the two lawmakers who voted against the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which gave President Lyndon B. Johnson broad powers to wage war in Vietnam. She quoted Morse, who said, “I believe that history will record that we have made a grave mistake in subverting and circumventing the Constitution of the United States.”
“Senator Morse was correct, and I fear we make the same mistake today,” she said.
Others compared her unkindly to Jeannette Rankin, the Montana congresswoman who was the lone vote against U.S. military involvement in both world wars. The most charitable interpretation was that both Rankin and Lee were “confused.”
Many assumed Lee’s career was finished, but, she told The Post, “It was not a poll-driven vote.” In fact, she was reelected the next year and remains the congresswoman representing parts of Oakland and Berkeley.
Over the decades, Lee has not wavered, repeatedly introducing legislation to repeal the 2001 authorization, and a similar 2002 authorization used to greenlight the war in Iraq. The repeal passed the House in June 2019 as part of an appropriations bill, but did not pass the Senate. In June of this year, Lee sponsored a bill to repeal a similar authorization from 2002 used to greenlight the war in Iraq. It passed the House 268-161 in a bipartisan vote.