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 issue.
“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 oneself.”
* 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.