On the Shoulders of Giants: Barbara Lee

Avatar of Ellora Mookherjee-Amodt

The September 11, 2001 attacks shook America to its core. The aftermath of this immensely tragic act of terrorism left the US in a state of shock and panic. Nine days later, the Bush administration announced a “War on Terrorism,” demanding that the Taliban government of Afghanistan turn over al-Quaeda leader Osama bin Laden or otherwise face attack. The Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists (AUMF) resolution was passed on September 14 and was signed into law on September 18. It gave the president power to order “necessary and appropriate force” against those responsible for the September 11 attacks. At the time, it seemed like an obvious decision and was voted in favor of almost unanimously by the House of Representatives, apart from one. Representative Barbara Lee, of California’s 13th congressional district, gained national attention after voting against Public Law 107-40.

Since that day, Lee has made it clear that the reason for her decision was not because she opposed military action in response to terrorism, but rather because she believed the scope of the legislation was too broad. She felt that no individual should have such power to wage war. She stated in a 2017 interview with San Francisco Chronicle: “It was a blank check to the president to attack anyone involved in the September 11 events—anywhere, in any country, without regard to our nation’s long-term foreign policy. … 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.” Throughout this trying time in American history, her attempts to de-escalate and minimize the chances of war demonstrated her loyalty to her anti-war and anti-violence beliefs.

Lee’s decision made national news, and the response was extremely polarized. She was labeled as a traitor and a communist, and received death threats towards herself and her family. In addition, she was heavily criticized by other politicians and news publications such as The Wall Street Journal, which stated, “One wishes Ms. Lee were just a clueless liberal, but her history leads me to conclude that she is the kind of ‘San Francisco Democrat’ that former United Nations Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick criticized in 1984: someone who ‘always blames America first.’” Despite the severity of the backlash she faced, Lee remained untainted. She continued to be passionate and proactive when it came to her unique standpoint and wasn’t afraid to express her diverging opinions to anyone.

Since then, she has continued to criticize the AUMF. Last September, on the anniversary of the day it was passed, she released a statement on her website that read, “I opposed this abuse of power then, and I still oppose it to this day…” She noted how earlier that year, the full House of Representatives passed the Fiscal Year 2021 Department of Defense Appropriations bill, which had included her amendment that planned to abolish the 2001 AUMF. During the time frame of the assassination of Qassim Suleimani, she was noted to have been a driving force in pushing the Democratic Caucus to hold Trump’s military power in check and preventing war with Iran. It has become clear that Lee’s groundbreaking anti-violence beliefs have had a progressive and heroic impact on Congress and on America.