John F. Kennedy's Pulitzer Prize-winning book Profiles in Courage told the story of eight U.S. senators who exhibited "the most admirable of human virtues courage." No one in the Senate has shown me much of that recently, unless you define "courage" as a fawning willingness to follow the mob.
But in the wake of the terrorist attack on Sept. 11, two members of Congress' other chamber have exemplified courage in exactly the way Kennedy described it. These two took a stand on principle. They took that stand in spite of the risk to their political careers, the likely defamation of their characters, and the possibility of violent reprisal. They are U.S. Reps. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from California, and Cynthia McKinney, a Democrat from Georgia. We may not agree entirely with their positions, but by God, we have to admire their guts.
Let's start with Lee, whose position is easiest to admire. On Sept. 14, the Senate voted 98-0 and the House of Representatives voted 420-1 to invoke the War Powers Act and give the president sweeping authority to fight terrorism. Lee cast the lone dissenting vote.
Lee says she agonized over her vote, consulted with religious leaders, family members, colleagues, and friends. She says she was as horrified and heartsick over the loss of life as every other member of Congress. In fact, she voted in favor of three prior resolutions that condemned the attacks, expedited payment of benefits to victims, and condemned bigotry against Arab-Americans, Muslims, and Southeast Asians. But in the end, she decided that a nation traumatized by tragedy "must be careful not to embark on an open-ended war with neither an exit strategy nor a focused target." She felt compelled by her conscience to vote against a resolution that in her view severely limited Congress' ability to oversee the president's conduct of the war against terrorism.
"What we did was go beyond the War Powers Act and give up the oversight responsibility in terms of where, when, and how," Lee says in an interview. "I don't believe we should give up our constitutional responsibilities just because we happen to be angry."
For this, Lee has been vilified from coast to coast. Her office was bombarded with faxes, telephone calls, and e-mails accusing her of treason and, what's worse, bleeding-heart liberalism. Capitol Police had to mount a guard around her office.
But think about what she is saying: The resolution should have been debated, its long-term implications more carefully considered. Is this such a radical point of view? The real question is, Why was she standing alone? Did no one else in Congress have any misgivings about the powers they were lavishing upon the president? Or were they too afraid to buck popular opinion?
Cynthia McKinney has also been vilified for daring to oppose the national mood. On Oct. 11, Saudi Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Bin Abdulaziz al Saud, one of the six richest men in the world, offered New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani $10 million to assist the victims of the attack on the World Trade Center. Giuliani pocketed the check, but then threw it back when told that the prince had urged the United States to "address some of the issues that led to such a criminal attack" and "re-examine its policies in the Middle East."
Giuliani chose to interpret the prince's words as an attempt to justify terrorism. McKinney disagreed. She wrote the prince a letter that in essence apologized for the mayor's discourtesy and agreed that U.S. policy in the Middle East should be examined.
Like her colleague Lee, McKinney found herself in a hailstorm of abuse. Critics accused her of stupidity, disloyalty, and treason. One of her colleagues, Rep. Charles Norwood (R-Ga.), came dangerously close to suggesting that McKinney be put to death for speaking out. "Since Representative McKinney feels that the terrorists who have killed over 5,000 innocent and unarmed Americans have a valid point that needs to be examined, she should do so herself, in person, immediately," Norwood said. "We should all pray for her as she does so, since her allies believe in killing women who speak or appear in public without male escort, or refuse to wear a veil."
That kind of rhetoric illustrates the caliber of the current national discourse hateful, unthinking, intolerant of dissent. Yet McKinney stood tall through it all. In a defiant written retort to her critics, she stated, "When I voted for the War Powers Resolution I did not surrender my right to express my views and opinions or to continue to advocate for justice and human rights in America or around the world."
Unfortunately, McKinney undercut the nobility of her position by offering in her apology letter to help the prince donate that $10 million to charities that cater to America's underprivileged. Still, it is a profile in courage even to ask for a $10 million handout at times such as these. I note that no one else in Congress had the guts to do so.Wiley Hall III writes for City Paper, where this feature first appeared. Send comments to [email protected]