Passed three days after September 11, 2001, the Authorization for Use of Military Force provided the President of the United States with the ability 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”.
This was strikingly broad language that opened the door to an endless and ill-defined war in Afghanistan, which has since been expanded to Pakistan. In the hands of a criminal, lying Bush administration, it opened the door to an illegal war of aggression in Iraq, which killed over a hundred thousand people, destroyed the country’s institutions and infrastructure, and transplanted Al Qaeda to a place where it had hitherto not existed.
Subsequently, this language has led to the indiscriminate use of drones to murder U.S. and foreign citizens without due process. It has the United States fighting shadow wars in Somalia, Yemen, and other parts of Africa and the Middle East that our security state won’t even tell us about. It helped to lay the groundwork for torture, abductions, rendition, and a host of other activities all associated with our War of Terror, none of which have made our country safer in the long-term, and most of which have visited horrific forms of barbarism on the people of other countries.
Incredibly, out of the more than five hundred members of Congress across both houses and both parties, only a single voice was raised in protest of the decision to grant the President such far-reaching powers. The dissenting voice was Congresswoman Barbara Lee from the Bay Area, who delivered her dissent in a measured and tearful tone and voice that earned her “death threats, accusations of treason, and for a time…24-hour protection from the Capitol police”.
In other words, our representatives, almost down to an individual, thought that just three days after an attack on the United States they possessed all of the information they needed in order to decide that the best thing to do was to abdicate their responsibility to safeguard the public interest and instead grant the President the power to wage war whenever, wherever, and however he saw fit.
There were no questions, there were no qualifications, and there was no sense that perhaps meeting violence with violence, and acting on emotion rather than analysis, could be dangerous.
There was no interest in calibrating a response to the attacks based on any understanding of their motive. There was no thought given as to what it might mean to launch a war unhinged from our professed values and un-moored from the restraints characteristically placed on the use of military violence by the state.
Twelve days after the attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., Barbara Lee explained her vote in Congress, arguing that to vote yes would have been to write 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 limits…..The Congress”, she maintained, “should have waited for the facts to be presented and then acted with fuller knowledge of the consequences of our action”.
On the day she opposed the bill, Lee pleaded that “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”. She closed her brief remarks by quoting a clergyman who had urged that “as we act, let us not become the evil that we deplore”.
Nearly as many U.S. citizens have died in Afghanistan as were killed on 9/11. Far more U.S. citizens were killed in Iraq than during the 9/11 attacks, without even counting the military contractors. And well over 100,000 people have been killed in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and other, un-acknowledged fronts of the War of Terror that has brought so little in terms of security, peace, or happiness to our country or any other part of the world.
Our military, at the behest of bloodthirsty neocons and with the backing of our supine representatives, has whirled through these countries with no regard for the transformations that bombing campaigns, kidnappings, torture prisons, or use of mercenaries will wreak on the lives of the people who we bomb, conquer, and leave to pick up their shattered lives.
We have deployed force with no regard for how it will contribute to terrorism that is driven by discontent, alienation, and the economic struggles of youth around the globe who feel that violence is their best way out.
Today, a few members of Congress are laying the ground for the repeal of the Authorization for Use of Military Force. Repeal would not undo any of the damage that our precipitate and thoughtless actions unleashed on the world. It would not mark a significant shift in the outlook of the executive branch or likely, in the conduct of our foreign policy.
But it would suggest that we might be—over a decade on—beginning to learn from our folly, and that we understand that writing blank checks for the use of violence is not a moral, appropriate, or productive way of governing our relations with our fellow global citizens.