As we debate Afghanistan, let us remember the courage of Congresswoman Barbara Lee

OPINION: Rep. Barbara Lee’s actions in 2001, and her entire life, capture the true spirit of movements such as Black Women Lead and Black Girl Magic

I wasn’t born when 9/11 happened. I, like so many of my generation, Gen Z, have learned about that day from stories from our parents, grandparents, and those older than us. Most of the stories share a similar narrative about where they were that morning and how horrific and sad that day was for them. My parents shared a story with me that 9/11 made them rethink their own marriage timeline and how they went from planning a big wedding to having a very small and private ceremony that they moved up to January of 2002.

In our schools, we are taught about the horrors of that day and how it changed so much in our society. We hear stories of how it used to be so much easier to navigate the airport and traveling. No security lines and taking off your shoes. In fact, people share how they used to walk with their loved ones to the gate and wave goodbye as they left on their trip. 

As a third-year law student, I am also exposed to the serious legal changes that happened in our nation after 9/11. There are discussions in my classes about privacy rights and the adoption of the Patriot Act. Sometimes we even have a short discussion about the changes in law right after 9/11 through the adoption of the Authorization for Use of Military Force that gave the office of the president new powers to use military force whenever and for however long they desired.

On Sept. 14, 2001, the United States House of Representatives met and debated House Joint Resolution 64 – Authorization for Use of Military Force. HR 64 was truly a historic piece of legislation. This three-page joint resolution gave the president of the United States the authority 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.”

In reviewing the C-SPAN video of the House debate that day, we see a stream of Congressmembers standing up and supporting House Joint Resolution 64. Many expressed the need to attack all groups that were involved in the planning and execution of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and specifically finding Osama Bin Laden. They shared their real feelings of sadness, anger, and anguish.

It wasn’t until later in the debate that we saw one single member of Congress take the floor and share a different opinion about House Joint Resolution 64. Congresswoman Barbara Lee from Oakland, California, and a member of the House International Relations Committee, started her comments by acknowledging the pain she and our nation was feeling. You can see her own deep emotion about the events as she struggles to talk about the grief that all Americans felt. For those watching, this passionate floor speech feels like it will move in the same direction of support as her colleagues had offered so far.

But unlike all the rest of her colleagues, Congresswoman Lee deviated from the emotional group thought of the day and asked our nation to think about our actions. She would say the following:

“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. This is a very complex and complicated matter.

Now this resolution will pass, although we all know that the President can wage a war even without it. 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.”

Congresswoman Lee would be the lone voice that day to oppose House Joint Resolution 64. Her lone No vote would make her a national figure. From that moment, Congresswoman Lee was attacked by many pundits and received threats that showed how ugly Americans could be.

In 2014, Conor Friedersdorf wrote a story for The Atlantic that captured the sentiment of letters Congresswoman Barbara Lee received after her lone “Nay” vote. Some of the more harsh and ugly letters that were shared called the Congresswoman a “anti-American Bitch,” “Dishonorable,” “selfish politician,” “a black mutt” and more. There was one selection, in particular, that seemed to capture the negative and hostile sentiment the most:

“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.”

The comment above captures clearly the deep and rooted American traditions of racism and sexism. The feeling shared by these words also captures this deeper history of the ‘us versus them’ mentality in our nation. These same feelings would be seen in the response to Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the national anthem and the rise of All Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter in response to Black Lives Matter.

Throughout it all, Congresswoman Lee stayed courageous and offered our nation at least one voice of caution for the actions the United States would be taking. Since that day in September of 2001, the United States has taken two decades of military action in Afghanistan. 2,488 American service members were killed in Afghanistan. The projected costs for this war financed through debt is $6.5 trillion.

Sounds like Generation Z will be paying for this well into our 50s and 60s. 

As a member of Generation Z, watching the news and pundits debate why Afghanistan failed is amusing. The immediate need for Republicans to try and blame President Joe Biden while ignoring, and deleting, their own leading role in this historic tragedy captures clearly the times we live in. What is not being discussed is that there was one member of Congress who had the courage to stand up and speak the truth in September of 2001 and warn us of the mistake we were making. 

Generation Z members have come of age politically in a time where the common narrative has been “Trust Black Women.” In Gen Z’s short lifetimes, Black women and Black voters have been at the center of ensuring that our nation has progressed during these troubling times. Without question, it’s because of Black women and Black voters in states like Georgia that Donald Trump was ousted from the White House, which led up to the horrific Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.

There is a very valuable lesson that Generation Z is learning from this, especially about trusting Black women. We are seeing through the eyes of HERstory what a lone voice can do in our nation. Congresswoman Barbara Lee is truly a profile in courage. Her actions in 2001, actually her entire life, capture the true spirit of movements such as Black Women Lead and Black Girl Magic. She joins HERstoric figures such as Mary McLeod BethuneFannie Lou HamerShirley ChisholmRosa Parks, and other Black women HERstory makers who have shaped our nation by their lone and fearless actions. Amazingly, when the opportunity presented itself to appoint Congresswoman Lee to the United States Senate earlier this year, this courageous and thoughtful leader was passed over by her home state of California. 

As our nation spends the next few weeks and months likely debating the chaos that is now Afghanistan, it will be important that we speak out and remind our fellow Americans that there was one voice who had the courage to tell us that we were rushing our actions and not taking time to understand the implications of those actions. We must also remember that it was the voice of a Black woman in America that tried to warn us what our actions would bring. In all honesty, Congresswoman Barbara Lee deserves a public apology from our nation. At least she should receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. But we know it will not happen — not in today’s America. 

What we can offer from Generation Z is a thank you to Congresswoman Lee for showing us how to be leaders. We can see through her actions in 2001 that our voice matters and that there should be no shame in taking time for critical thinking that weighs the potential consequences of our actions before rushing to a decision.

Younger generations often hear that history is important in school because we are supposed to learn from our history and hopefully avoid the mistakes of those that came before us. Congresswoman Barbara Lee, Generation Z is grateful that we have your courageous actions to learn from and help us shape how we handle and respond to the future crises we will face in our lifetimes. 

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