Barbara Jean Lee was only in Congress for three years when she stood before her visibly disgruntled colleagues to explain her opposition to the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force. Lee, of Oakland, was the only member of the House or Senate (there are 535) to vote against the authorization.
“Now this resolution will pass, although we all know that the President can wage a war even without it,” she said. “However difficult this vote may be, some of us must urge the use of restraint. Our country is in a state of mourning. Some of us must say, let’s step back for a moment. Let’s just pause, just for a minute and think through the implications of our actions today, so that this does not spiral out of control.”
When Lee spoke, her voice trembled and cracked with emotion. She nonetheless kept her composure, although the effort was barely visible (controlled breaths; an even, almost motherly tone; hand gestures for effect).
“Now I have agonized over this vote,” she continued. “But I came to grips with it today, and I came to grips with opposing this resolution during the very painful, yet very beautiful, memorial service. As a member of the clergy so eloquently said, ‘As we act, let us not become the evil that we deplore.’”
For her thoughtfulness, Lee would receive thousands of pieces of hate mail and countless death threats littered with insults and racial epithets.
The Oakland congresswoman would eventually learn that her chief of staff’s cousin, Wanda Anita Green, was part of the United Airlines crew aboard Flight 93.
Green was hailed as one of the heroes who helped divert the plane from its intended course, which authorities suspect was headed to the Capitol building, where Lee was having a meeting in the dining room early in the morning of that fateful day.
“My staff called and said something very dangerous was happening, and I needed to evacuate,” Lee recalled for a story published Sept. 10 in Elle Magazine. “They weren’t sure what, but they told me to get out of the building. At the same time, I heard Capitol police say, ‘Evacuate. Leave, leave, leave.’”
The story of Green’s possible role in taking on the 9/11 hijackers reminded me of Lt. Michael Byrd’s role in the attempted coup on Jan. 6, 2021. Byrd fired a single shot at Ashli Babbitt, a protester who was attempting to break into a room containing federal lawmakers.
“Every piece of evidence that is released further validates the Lieutenant’s conduct,” said Byrd’s lawyer. “The Lieutenant exercised professionalism and restraint in heroically defending and protecting members of Congress and their staff during the violent insurrection on January 6th.”
Byrd has also received a rash of death threats. He was harassed and called n—. Demonstrators showed up outside of his apartment. The Blue Lives Matter movement was mysteriously absent from this Black cop’s line of defense. Suddenly, outrage flowed from the right-wing over a fatal police shooting. Babbitt, unarmed but for a bloodlust mob at her back, was painted as a damsel in distress.
Another hero on Jan. 6 is Capitol Police Officer Eugene Goodman, “who was captured on video facing down members of the mob that breached the Capitol on Jan. 6 and diverting them from entering the Senate chamber and potentially saving lives,” according to the New York Times.
Goodman received bipartisan praise by the lawmakers he saved, many of them instrumental in the attempted coup. He got the Congressional Gold Medal, among other honors (no doubt a sign of not a little embarrassment on the part of people aware of their own complicity but too duplicitous to own up to it). I imagine Goodman sensed the grotesque in all of this flattery.
One of his friends told the Washington Post that Goodman said “he’d do the same thing again. He’s not looking for any accolades. … But the attention is a little scary for him.”
A crude, but clarifying song
When the first plane hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center, I was just getting out of gym class at Oak Park and River Forest High School. I only remember the dazed face of a teacher as he shared the surreal news with someone else.
During my second period English class, the teacher rolled a box TV (this was before the ubiquity of flat screens) into the room so that we could see the devastation on the news in real time.
For the remainder of the day — indeed for the next weeks and months and several years afterward, we would be inundated with color-coded terror alerts, pundits on cable news calling for blood, American flag bandanas (I bought one myself) and relatives of mine commenting approvingly of George W. Bush’s “gangster swagger.” School notwithstanding, this was our real education in modern American patriotism.
When nationalistic passions congeal in this country, as they did in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the result almost always hardens into hatred and violence and jingoism. And those values almost always translate into runaway profits for warmongers.
The same year of the 9/11 attacks, the rapper Project Pat released a single that my friends and I listened to often when we were in high school. The lyrics are so crass and misogynistic that I now cringe reading them as an adult. Back then, though, this kind of music was standard fare for a lot of us.
I grew up listening to powerful people talk down to Blacks, pinning the blame for our socioeconomic conditions on our so-called “culture of poverty,” which was supposed to be embodied in hip-hop (a billion-dollar industry propped up by the children of those same high-minded critics).
The crass materialism, the hyper-sexualization, the misogyny, the violence, the toxic masculinity of hip-hop is a mirror image of the nation’s elite (I challenge you to watch The Wolf of Wall Street and listen to Project Pat’s “Don’t Save Her” and explain how the values expressed in the film differ from those expressed in the song).
That’s what I’ve realized some two decades after 9/11 and after watching this country routinely spit in the face of the martyrs and heroes who risk themselves for a form of patriotism that, I’m now convinced, is too good for the empire we’ve become. The very concepts of freedom and liberty have been twisted, perverted and pimped out by the powers that be.
Let me be clear. The mistreatment cuts across identity lines. Just look at how this country has treated the New York City first responders — refusing to adequately compensate them, lying to them about the air toxicity at Ground Zero, refusing to even show up to hearings related to their health care and benefits.
“I can’t help but think what an incredible metaphor this room is for the entire process that getting health care and benefits for 9/11 first responders has come to,” the comedian Jon Stewart said in 2019 at a House Judiciary Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties.
“Behind me, a filled room of 9/11 first responders. And in front of me, a nearly empty Congress. Sick and dying, they brought themselves down here to speak to no one.”
So the carelessness isn’t exclusive to Black people, but I’ll argue that the vitriol — a nasty, hyper-aggressive variant that includes the worst of hyper-individualism, unregulated capitalism and racism — is particularly acute when it comes to Black heroes like Barbara Lee and Michael Byrd.
It seems that Black people are constantly saving America from herself, only to be under-appreciated when we aren’t being outright castigated or threatened with physical harm for our heroism.
Project Pat said it best in a song that — for all of its ghetto glorification of excess, crass carnality, promiscuity and its eschewing of commitment — may as well be about American empire.
“Don’t save her, she don’t wanna be saved (Ain’t nothin’ going on but the money and power).”