“I rise today, really, with a very heavy heart, one that is filled with sorrow for the families and loved ones who were killed and injured this week,” intoned California Democratic Congressmember Barbara Lee, her voice trembling with emotion as she spoke from the House floor on September 14th, 2001, three days after the devastating 9/11 attacks.
The nation was reeling from the deaths of over 3,000 people, and then-president George W. Bush was beating the drums for war. Lee spoke during a five-hour debate on whether to grant the president expansive powers to use military force in retaliation for the attacks, which the Senate had already passed by a vote of 98-0. Barbara Lee would be the sole member of Congress to vote against war in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. The final vote was 420-1.
“Only the most foolish and the most callous would not understand the grief that has gripped our people and millions across the world,” she continued.
“This unspeakable act on the United States has really forced me, however, to rely on my moral compass, my conscience, and my God for direction. September 11th 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.”
Barbara Lee had prepared her speech in a rush. She thought the resolution would go through the committee process, but, instead, the Republican House Speaker brought it to the full House directly.
“I had to race down to the floor,” Congressmember Lee told the Democracy Now! news hour in an event sponsored by the Institute for Policy Studies, just days before the 20th anniversary of September 11th. “I was trying to get my thoughts together…I had to just scribble something on a piece of paper.”
Barbara Lee’s scribbled words resounded through the House chamber:
“However difficult this vote may be, some of us must urge the use of restraint. Our country is in a state of mourning…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.”
Spiral it did. Brown University’s Watson Institute estimates that at least 801,000 people have been killed by direct, post-9/11 war violence in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, and Pakistan, with civilians accounting for close to half that number. Thousands of U.S. troops and contractors have been killed and injured, with a price tag for U.S. taxpayers the Institute estimates will reach well over $8 trillion.
In Turning Point, a sweeping new five-part documentary about the U.S. response to 9/11, Congressmember Lee reflects on that Authorization for Use of Military Force, or AUMF, that she alone opposed in Congress: “It’s been used over 41 times, in about 19 countries not related at all to 9/11…It’s been used all over the world as the basis to use force, and to bomb and engage in military operations. That is unconstitutional. It sets the stage for perpetual war.”
Congressmember Lee courageously voted no against the AUMF twenty years ago, as Ground Zero smoldered along with the wreckage at the Pentagon and of Flight 93 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, which crashed as passengers and crew fought that plane’s hijackers. After the vote, Lee immediately began receiving death threats, and being called a traitor and un-American. But she got other responses as well: “Actually, 40 per cent of those 60,000 communications were very positive. Bishop Tutu, Coretta Scott King, people from all around the world sent some very positive messages to me.”
At the time, Barbara Lee was one of the newest members of Congress, and one of the few African American women to hold office in either the House or Senate. When asked on Democracy Now! where she got the courage to take that difficult stand, she said, “I am a Black woman in America.”
Barbara Lee then told a story she rarely shares in interviews, about the day she was born, in El Paso, Texas:
“My mother needed a C-section, and went to the hospital. They wouldn’t admit her because she was Black,” she said on Democracy Now! “She was unconscious. They had to pull me out of my mother’s womb using forceps…I almost died in childbirth. My mother almost died having me…Everything else is like, no problem.”
On September 14th, 2001, Congressmember Barbara Lee closed her historic speech with a plea for peace and diplomacy we all should remember:
“I have agonized over this vote. I came to grips with opposing this resolution during the very painful yet very beautiful memorial service. As a member of the clergy so eloquently said, ‘As we act, let us not become the evil that we deplore.'”
Amy Goodman is the host of Democracy Now!, a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on more than 1,300 stations. She is the co-author, with Denis Moynihan, of The Silenced Majority, a New York Times bestseller. This column originally appeared on Democracy Now!