Barbara Lee, 9/11 and the Islamic State

Every September 11 commemoration should take place with another reflection – not merely over those lives lost in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, but the consequent actions that turned the United States into an internally paranoid garrison state. President Harry S. Truman may well have done his bit in inaugurating the security state citing the charge of the heavy Red brigades, but it took the Bush administration’s response to the attacks of September 11, 2001 to turn the Republic into a lashing brute of a colossus indifferent to consequence.

With the asbestos dust still settling on Manhattan, Congress was baying for blood. Where, however, to find the target and rupture the arteries? There was none to be found – or nothing concrete in any case. And talk about malignant terrorist cells was meaningless – one can never have a war against incorporeal entities or abstract nouns. The US “War on Drugs” showed the fallacy of that.

The Authorisation for Use of Military Force (AUMF) was the rather off-colour legislative product of a post-9/11 climate. It was a grand abdication: it vested a mandate – from Congress – in the executive. Importantly, it surrendered the function of scrutiny by the people’s representatives on the Hill. Whatever the President says goes.

In its wording, “the President is authorised to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organisations, or persons he determines planned, authorised, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harboured against organisations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organisations or persons.”

It seems to scrape all lines of absurdity – to go on a war footing against targets that scant deserve that name in conflict. In that absence, Congresswoman Barbara Lee of California’s 9th congressional district was hugging, desperately, the lines of sanity that were blurred. Lee was not going to accept the premises of the action on September 13. She was the only, Cassandra-like dissenter against the war resolution.

Do not, she warned, embark on “an open-ended war with neither an exit strategy nor a focused target”. Do not, she urged, grant the President that “blank check… to attack anyone involved in the September 11 attacks – anywhere, in any country, without regards to our nation’s long-term foreign policy, economic and national security interests, and without time limit.” The open-ended war has become orthodoxy. Lee became a poster girl of the anti-war movement, but the militants remained in charge.

The near unanimous passing was very revealing. The permanent war stance is the gun seeking a target, wherever it might be. It is ancient Rome’s ceaseless tussle with Germanic tribes on its borders, albeit on a global scale; it is the assumption that permanent peace is merely kept in its artificial state by waging conflicts to keep the irritable tribes in line. It also reflected US domestic ills – violence as norm and logic; weapons as an extreme form of dispute resolution.

The US-led strategy in the Middle East remains plagued by the incalculable spread of the AUMF doctrine. Veteran Republican Patrick J. Buchanan has suggested that the Obama administration’s strategy to “degrade and ultimately destroy the terrorist group known as ISIL” is “incoherent, inconsistent and, ultimately, non-credible.” He stresses that this is a war without aim, and one which will have diabolical effects. “As the threat is not primarily ours, the urgency to go to war is not ours.”

The AUMF remains both boon and dispensation. It was still held by Department of Defence officials during a 2013 Senate Armed Service committee hearing chaired by Carl Levin as entirely appropriate, the stuff of necessary thinking in a dangerous world (more precisely, dangerous to supposed American interests). This, despite the officials in question never naming a single enemy. A less revealing term of “associated forces” was used, suggesting bogeymen in league lurking behind curtains waiting to strike. Who cares for the evidence?

Indeed, the legal rationale for the administration’s strategy against IS continues in the troubled footsteps of the AUMF, something highlighted by a senior official’s observations reproduced in The Guardian:

“Based on ISIL’s longstanding relationship with al-Qaida (AQ) and Usama bin Laden; its long history of conducting, and continued desire to conduct, attacks against US persons and interests, the extensive history of US combat operations against Isil dating back to the time the group first affiliated with AQ in 2004; and Isil’s position – supported by some individual members and factions of AQ-aligned groups – that it is the true inheritor of Usama bin Laden’s legacy, the President may rely on the 2001 AUMF as statutory authority for the use of force against Isil, notwithstanding the recent public split between AQ’ s senior leadership and Isil.”

Judging from such a view, the administration is moving to the startling suggestion that ISIS, or ISIL, or IS is, in fact, Al Qaeda. In so doing, there is no need to even consider that force as an actual threat at all, let alone historical realities associated with its formation.

A variant of this reasoning may well have been found in the views of the then Assistant to Obama for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism John Brennan, expressed at Harvard in 2011. “Because we are engaged in an armed conflict with Al Qaeda, the United States takes the legal position that – in accordance with international law – we have the authority to take action against Al Qaeda and its associated forces without doing a separate self-defence analysis each time.” How utterly good of him to dispense with that all too rigorous need.

Not only are we living in a world of open-ended, undeclared conflicts against unidentifiable enemies; we are inhabiting a planet run by authorities allergic to sampling, evidence and assessment, all charmed by exhortations to protect civilization, whatever that might be. Such an environment encourages woolly-headed thinking. When armed, such thinking is ultimately fatal to both life and liberty.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge and lectures at RMIT University.  Email:

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: