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Congress Should Mark Anniversary of the 'War on Terror' by Deauthorizing It | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Congress Should Mark Anniversary of the 'War on Terror' by Deauthorizing It

Brussels—Anniversaries offer an opportunity to assess, with the perspective afforded by the passage of time, who got things right and who did not.

Unfortunately, in an age when so much of our media bows more to power than accuracy, that does not mean that those who got things right will be turned to for advice and counsel.

In fact, quite the opposite.

So it is that, as the anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon approached, the most prominently featured 9/11 figure was former Vice President Dick Cheney.

The term employed most frequently by commentators—aside from “Darth Vader”—to describe Cheney’s recollections of 9/11 and its aftermath has been “no apologies.” That is because Cheney has so very much to apologize for.

But not everyone got 9/11 wrong.

On the eve of the tenth anniversary of the attacks, I joined Mary Robinson, the former Irish president and United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, in keynoting the “Journalism in the Shadow of Terror Laws” conference at the Centre de Presse International in Brussels.

Robinson said many striking things in her remarks to the session we addressed, but what stuck with me was an off-hand reflection. “I remember,” she said, “the loneliness of speaking out against the declaration of a ‘war on terrorism.’ ”

The language we use to characterize events defines our response to them and when crimes against humanity were defined as acts of war, explained Robinson, then an appropriate demand that those responsible for horrific violence be brought to justice was replaced with the overwrought and overarching demands of “a perpetual war of terror.”

This is a vital reference point for what is actually a week of anniversaries.

September 11 marks a vital anniversary, but so, too, does September 14, the day that the Congress of the United States authorized a “war on terror.” The human toll of that war has been immense, as has the political toll for a United States that has lost both good will and authority over the past decade. And the financial cost, according to new accounting by the National Priorities Project, is staggering: more than $7.6 trillion in defense and homeland security spending.

It is not realistic to suggest that, had there been no attacks on September 11, 2001, all or even most of that $7.6 trillion would have been spent on more necessary and fruitful projects. America had a military-industrial complex before 9/11 and it would have one even if terrorists had not attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

But the seemingly permanent “war on terror”—which has redefined America is precisely the way that James Madison worried it would when the father of the Constitution wrote in 1795

Of all the enemies to public liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds are added to those of subduing the force of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes and the opportunities of fraud growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manners and of morals engendered by both. No nation could reserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.

Just as the voice of Mary Robinson—then serving in her UN High Commissioner role—was a lonely one in opposition to declaring a “war on terror” that would define a decade for the world, so Congresswoman Barbara Lee was the lonely voice in the US Congress.

Lee cast the sole vote against Public Law 107-40, the Authorization of the Use of Military Force Against Terrorists, which effectively launched what is now know as the “war on terror.”

“September 11 changed the world. Our deepest fears now haunt us,” Congresswoman Lee said on September 14. “Yet I am convinced that military action will not prevent further acts of international terrorism against the United States.”

“[We] must be careful not to embark on an open-ended war with neither an exit strategy nor a focused target,” Lee concluded. “We cannot repeat past mistakes.”

That wise counsel was not heeded. Cheney’s “war on terror” language carried not just the day but the decade.

But, now that the decade is done, Lee is back with a proposal to draw down the “war on terror.”

“In reflecting on the rush-to-war in Afghanistan and President Bush’s misguided war-of-choice in Iraq, my worst fears have unfortunately been realized,” Lee said when she introduced legislation to sunset and repeal over a six-month period the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists.

“Over the past [decade], this broad authorization of force has had far-reaching implications which shake the very foundations of our great nation and democracy. It has been used to justify warrantless surveillance and wiretapping activities, indefinite detention practices that fly in the face of our constitutional values, extrajudicial targeted-killing operations, and a policy of borderless and open-ended war that threatens to indefinitely extend U.S. military engagement around the world,” the congresswoman said. “It is time for Congress to reexamine, and ultimately repeal this flawed authorization. The alternative, to concede Congress’s constitutional responsibilities and blindly accept the persistence of war without end, is unacceptable.”

Lee is right.

Her proposal has for the most part been neglected by the same media that have celebrated Cheney in recent weeks.

But Lee has a few more allies as we approach September 14, 2011, than she did on September 11, 2001.

Her proposal has been cosponsored by Democratic Representatives John Conyers Jr. (Michigan), Donna Edwards (Maryland), Keith Ellison (Minnesota), Bob Filner (California), Raul Grijalva (Arizona), Mike Honda (California), Dennis Kucinich (Ohio), Jesse Jackson Jr. (Illinois), John Lewis (Georgia), Jim McDermott (Washington), Pete Stark (California), Maxine Waters (California) and Lynn Woolsey (California). One Republican, North Carolina’s Walter Jones Jr., has joined them.

It is still lonely to speak out against the declaration of a “war on terrorism.” But it is a little less lonely today than it was a decade ago. And our media could—and should—make it less lonely by highlighting the current legislative initiative of the woman who got it right on September 14, 2001.

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