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December 2001/January 2002
The Courage to Vote No

By Claudette Silver


When Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA) voted in the U.S. House of Representatives against Senate Joint Resolution 23 authorizing the use of military force in response to the attacks of September 11th, she stood alone. The resolution passed 98-0 in the Senate, and 420-1 in the House, granting the President sweeping military power based on the War Powers Act of 1973. Barbara Lee, while clearly committed to responding to the attacks, disagreed that military action was the best solution. “I am not convinced that voting for the resolution preserves and protects U.S. interests,” said Lee. In the following weeks, Lee’s office was been over-run with correspondence from more than 30,000 people. Roughly 60 to 70 percent nationwide have expressed their support, according to Lee, with the number reaching up to 80 percent in her home district that includes Oakland and Berkeley, California. Of course, not everyone supports her vote. Following her vote, Lee received several death threats and required a police escort.

In an interview with John Nichols of The Nation, Lee reveals her surprise at being the only representative to vote no. “It never dawned on me that I would cast the only vote against this resolution.” She believes that although her fellow Representatives voted in favor of the resolution, many still favor a restrained military response. “If you read the floor statements, you’ll see that there are many members of Congress who share my concerns...when I cast that vote, I was speaking for other people in Congress and outside Congress who want a more deliberative approach.”

Lee’s opposition to war, while perhaps shocking to some in light of the magnitude of the WTC tragedy, is not unprecedented. In fact, Lee also stood as the lone dissenter just two years ago in the 424-1 House vote against the bombing of Serbia. Her desire to seek alternatives to military action is reminiscent of another U.S. Congresswoman—Jeanette Rankin of Montana. She, too, chose to vote her conscience regardless of the consequence.

In 1916, Rankin became the first woman elected to the House of Representatives at a time when women could not vote in most states. She ran as a Republican on a progressive platform that included national women’s suffrage and child protection laws. Not long after she took office, President Woodrow Wilson called a special session of Congress, and on April 6, 1917, the Senate passed a resolution declaring war against Germany. When it came time for the House to vote, Rankin was one of only 50 members who opposed the measure. According to Rankin, “I knew that we were asked to vote for a commercial war, that none of the idealistic hopes would be carried out, and I was aware of the falseness of much of the propaganda.”

Rankin’s dedication to democracy and social justice led her to decades of work in Washington, DC. After her first term in Congress, from 1917 to 1919, Rankin worked as a lobbyist for groups such as the Women’s Peace Union and the National Council for the Prevention of War. She also founded the Georgia Peace Society in 1928 after establishing a residence in Athens, GA.

In 1940, Rankin returned to Congress, this time running on an openly anti-war campaign. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Congress debated on the declaration of war against Japan. Again, she opposed the measure, this time casting the sole vote in both the House and Senate against the war. Said Rankin, “As a woman, I can’t go to war and I refuse to send anyone else.”

Although this marked an end to her political career, Rankin never left the realm of peace and social justice. She traveled to India seven times between 1946 and 1971 to study the nonviolent teachings and strategies of Mahatma Gandhi. She also actively opposed the war in Vietnam, and on January 15, 1968, led more than 5,000 women, who called themselves the Jeannette Rankin Brigade, to a demonstration on Capitol Hill.

Decisions such as these were a struggle for both Lee and Rankin, who looked to their conscience to guide them. Rankin, although a committed pacifist, agreed to wait until the last minute to vote on the declaration of WWI. She explained, “I said I would listen to those who wanted war and would not vote until the last opportunity; and if I could see any reason for going to war, I would change it.” Nothing that was said changed her mind. Similarly, Lee reached her decision after attending a memorial service for those killed in the World Trade Center attacks. She writes, “I have agonized over this vote. But I came to grips with opposing this resolution during the very painful memorial service today. As a member of the clergy so eloquently said, ‘As we act, let us not become the evil that we deplore.’”

Rankin’s famous quote “You can no more win a war than you can win an earthquake” speaks to the futility and downward cyclical nature of violence. Similarly, Lee believes that solutions to international crises exist outside the realm of military maneuvering. “Military action is a one-dimensional reaction to a multi-dimensional problem,” says Lee. With hope, she adds, “Finally, we have a chance to demonstrate to the world that great powers can choose to fight on the fronts of their choosing, and that we can choose to avoid needless military action when other avenues to redress our rightful grievances and to protect our nation are available to us.”

At times like these, the bravery of Jeanette Rankin and Barbara Lee to vote their consciences inspires hope in those of us who search for non-military and diplomatic solutions to conflict.


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