William Raspberry / Syndicated columnist
The courage to be the first to have second thoughts
The long interview with my late colleague Henry Mitchell, in May 1984, includes these two paragraphs:
"First, I should have been more alert at the time' the Senate passed the Tonkin Gulf resolution giving the president virtually free rein. Two senators, Wayne Morse, I-Ore., and Ernest Gruening, D-Alaska, alone opposed the resolution and Fulbright wishes with all his heart he'd made it a party of three.
"Not that it would have made the slightest difference in the course of affairs, but I'd feel better about myself."'
What brings Fulbright's hindsight to mind is the stunningly out-of-step vote of Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., on a resolution to give the president authority to use military force against anyone involved in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States. The vote was 98-0 in the Senate, 420-1 in the House.
The 55-year-old Bay Area legislator his been catching tons of grief — including threats against her life.
And I'm wondering if, years from now, some of her colleagues might be wishing they'd stood with her.
That's not a prediction. Who knows, they might be saying on their deathbeds that they don't understand what could prompt an American congresswoman to take such an outrageous position. In a way, that makes the vote more memorable — dare I say more admirable? It's a lot easier to be different when you know for a fact that you'll soon, and during your lifetime, be fully vindicated.
I don't know that Barbara Lee will ever be vindicated in the eyes of those who see her as the next thing to a traitor. I only know that a lot of people, myself included, are having second thoughts about how important, useful or relevant it is to cast the unspeakable evil unleashed on America two weeks ago in terms of war.
Terrorism on that scale may in fact be the moral equivalent of war. The point, though, is that it is by no stretch the military equivalent of war. It is not an attack by a country or a group of countries against whom we can retaliate. Even doing what is necessary to bring to justice "dead or alive" the notorious Osama bin Laden and his closest henchmen will (unless Afghanistan's ruling Taliban gives him up) entail quite predictable casualties to women, children and other innocents.
But what of it? The people who did this awful thing gave not a second's thought to the slaughter of innocents. Indeed, every one of their victims, not being political or military policy-makers, was an innocent — guilty only of being of or in America.
And many of us have been tempted to justify retaliation that involves the killing of innocents on similar grounds — the "guilt" of citizenship in a country where America is hated, the guilt of being Arab or Muslim.
As so often happens when some great evil disrupts our lives and threatens our sense of security, we are in danger of becoming the very thing we hate.
It's a danger I've sensed in myself since the first day of this "war." I don't want my country to be in the ludicrous position of boxing by Marquis of Queensbury rules against an opponent that won't hesitate to use chairs, guns or help from the spectators.
President Bush is due a great deal of credit for avoiding rash responses, even while talking cowboy tough. His first resort has been to diplomacy — getting the Pakistanis to talk to their Afghan neighbors — a ploy that, even if unsuccessful, gives us a little more time to think what it is we really want to do, what we can realistically accomplish without becoming what we despise. We do need to think, not merely react.
That, if I understand her, is what Rep. Lee hoped to inspire with her lonely vote. As Fulbright said of the vote he didn't cast, Lee's vote won't matter. Indeed, it's pretty clear the president already had the authority contained in the resolution. Maybe he'll have to use that authority.
But as awful as I feel about what the terrorists have done to America, including my newly insecure and inconvenienced little corner of it, I'm glad someone is asking if war is the only way.
William Raspberry's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.