The problem with letting history judge is that
so many officials get away with murder in the meantime while precious
few choose to face protracted vilification for pursuing truth and peace.
A grand total of two people in the entire Congress were able to resist a blood-drenched
blank check for the Vietnam War. Standing alone on Aug. 7, 1964, Senators Ernest
Gruening and Wayne Morse voted against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.
Forty-three years later, we don't need to go back decades to find a
lopsided instance of a lone voice on Capitol Hill standing against
war hysteria and the expediency of violent fear. Days after 9/11, at
the launch of the so-called "war on terrorism," just one lawmaker
out of 535 cast a vote against the gathering madness.
"However difficult this vote may be, some of us must urge the use of
restraint," she said on the floor of the House of Representatives.
The date was Sept. 14, 2001.
She went on: "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."
And, she said: "As we act, let us not become the evil that we deplore."
With all that has happened since then with all that has spun out of
control, with all the ways that the U.S. government has mimicked the evil it
deplores it's stunning to watch
and hear, for a single minute, what this brave congresswoman had to say.
After speaking those words, Rep. Barbara Lee voted no. And the
fevered slanders began immediately. She was called a traitor. Pundits
went crazy. Death threats came.
Barbara Lee kept on keeping on. And nearly six years later, she's a key leader
of antiwar forces inside and outside Congress. In her own way, she is a political
descendent of Sen. Morse, whose
denunciations of the Vietnam War are equally inspiring to watch today.
The pretexts for starting the wars on Vietnam and Iraq preceded the
pretexts for continuing them. While antiwar activism took hold and
public opinion shifted against the war effort, the Congress lagged
way behind. Today, the need for a cutoff of war funding remains
unfulfilled. To watch rarely seen footage of Wayne Morse and Barbara
Lee is to see a standard of decency that few of our purported
representatives in Congress are meeting.
There's no point in waiting for members of Congress to be heroic.
When we're blessed with the living examples of a few genuine
visionaries in office, they should inspire us to realize our own
possibilities. Ultimately, our own actions and inaction are at
"Incontestably, alas," James Baldwin wrote a few years after the
killing of Martin Luther King Jr., while the war in Vietnam still raged, "most
people are not, in action, worth very much; and yet, every human being is an
unprecedented miracle. One tries to treat them as the miracles they are, while
trying to protect oneself against the disasters they've become. This is not
very different from the act of faith demanded by all those marches and petitions
while Martin was still alive. One could scarcely be deluded by Americans anymore,
one scarcely dared expect anything from the great, vast, blank generality; and
yet one was compelled to demand of Americans and for their sakes, after
all a generosity, a clarity, and a nobility which they did not dream
of demanding of themselves.
Perhaps, however, the moral of the story
(and the hope of the world) lies in what one demands, not of others, but of
Archival footage of Barbara Lee and Wayne Morse appears in the new documentary
film War Made Easy: How Presidents
and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death, based on Norman Solomon's book
of the same title. The full-length movie, narrated by Sean Penn and produced
by the Media Education Foundation, is available on DVD.