Updated: Mar 3
This piece was originally published in Inkstick.
My clearest memory of 9/11 is running home from my six-year-old son’s school, clutching his little hand in mine, while a series of huge BOOMs shook the ground and everything around us. We lived on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, and the school was only five blocks from our house. In the moment, I assumed we were hearing the sound of other planes crashing into other buildings. The US Capitol, maybe? Or the White House? The Supreme Court? I had no idea. And I was totally unprepared to answer when his scared little voice asked, “What’s happening Mom?”
“Just run, baby,” was all I could say.
The raw fear of that day has stayed with me. It is the only time in my life that I have truly feared for my life and the lives of my children. If I let the memory of that moment back into my consciousness, I still feel it like it just happened.
We were some of the lucky ones. We made it home safely, and my immediate family and I were fine and unharmed. The sounds we heard were sonic booms from the jets scrambling out of Andrews Air Force Base. We lost two extended family members in New York, but we didn’t learn that until several days later.
My now 24-year-old child only has the vaguest memory of running home from school and the chaos that ensued. His younger brother — just three at the time — doesn’t remember it at all. What they do know is that the United States has been at war around the globe during their entire conscious lives.
Within days of the attacks, Congress passed, and President George W. Bush signed, an Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF). The entirety of it reads: “That the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.” That’s it.
Only one member of Congress, Representative Barbara Lee, voted against the AUMF. In an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle just days later she wrote, “It was a blank check to the president to attack anyone involved in the Sept. 11 events — anywhere, in any country, without regard to our nation’s long-term foreign policy, economic and national security interests, and without time limit.”
For her conviction, Congresswoman Lee faced an unprecedented and withering backlash. She was vilified as “anti-American,” accused of supporting the terrorists, and she faced death threats so persistent and severe that she required round the clock bodyguards. But, oh, how right she was.
Twenty-one countries, three Presidents, and nine Congresses later, the cost of the endless wars that the United States has engaged in or supported since September 11th, 2001 are staggering. According to the Costs of War Project’s estimates, the United States has spent $5.9 trillion fighting wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and multiple other places around the globe. And that figure doesn’t include future interest costs on borrowing, which will likely add an additional $8 trillion over the next 40 years. So in 2059, nearly 60 years after the attacks of September 11th, we’ll all still be paying this bill. As will our children and grandchildren.
The human cost is even more devastating. Over 480,000 people have died as a result of these conflicts, including 244,000 civilians. Another 21 million Afghan, Iraqi, Pakistani, and Syrian people are living as war refugees or internally displaced people. The enormity of that amount of loss and suffering is overwhelming and incomprehensible.
And to what end? Congresswoman and Iraq War veteran Tulsi Gabbard, who voluntarily enlisted after 9/11, recently commented that “we are no better off in Afghanistan today than we were when this war began… the Taliban was there long before we came in and they will be there long after we leave.”
Last February, Congresswoman Lee introduced legislation — again — calling on Congress to end the nearly limitless AUMF and finally cancel the blank check. The AUMF amendment passed in the House this summer, but faces the very real threat of being bargained away during the House and Senate Armed Services Committees’ conference, which will work to reconcile the two National Defense Authorization Act bills before October 1.
Most Americans demanded a response to the brutal terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 that ended nearly 3,000 American lives in a single morning. But trillions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives later, the endless and unchecked military actions that have followed are a grotesque and imbalanced response. Engaging in endless wars has not made the United States or the world safer. In her floor speech during the AUMF debate, Congresswoman Lee quoted from the memorial service held at the National Cathedral only hours before, “As we act, let us not become the evil that we deplore.”
Now is the time for Congress to reassert its authority, for the Executive branch to increase its diplomatic efforts, and for us as citizens to reclaim our voice in these matters before another parent has to grab a small hand and say, “Just run, baby.”