I’ve have often wrestled with the question: What does it mean to be an American?
An illuminating answer to this question was offered by a reserved, middle-aged Muslim couple who briefly took the stage during the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. Their names are Khizr and Ghazala Khan. They are immigrants from Pakistan. Only Khizr Khan spoke, but Ghazala Khan’s pained demeanor equally expressed her husband’s message.
Khan addressed Donald Trump during his speech, although his words were really meant for all Americans. He first spoke about his experience as an immigrant:
“Like many immigrants, we came to this country empty-handed. We believed in American democracy — that with hard work and the goodness of this country, we could share in and contribute to its blessings.”
I was moved by these words, because my great-grandparents were also hard-working immigrants.
But when Khan shared the story of one of his three sons, Army Captain Humayun Khan, who was killed in 2004 in Iraq by a suicide bomber, he tore at my heart. I too have three sons. I can’t imagine the agony of losing one in such horrific violence.
I opposed the American military intervention in Iraq. It was unjustified and based on false premises. It led to hundreds of thousands of casualties, mostly innocent civilians.
But I respect the sacrifice of Captain Humayun Khan — and that of his parents. There is no greater manifestation of commitment to one’s country than the loss of one’s life and one’s loved one — and no greater act of honor.
What Khan did next in his speech, given the current sociopolitical environment, I see as one of the most defining moments of Americanism in my lifetime.
Khan pulled out a copy of the U.S. Constitution and challenged Trump on whether he had ever read it. He spoke specifically about the 14th Amendment, telling Trump (and every American) to “look for the words liberty and equal protection of law.”
The Khans had struck the deepest chord of Americanism. They had also — as Muslims — pointed to a fundamental Judaic-Christian tenet: treating others as you would have them treat yourself (the essence of the 14th Amendment).
Khan then encouraged people to vote for Hillary Clinton. But I found Clinton unworthy of his endorsement and the honor of the Khans.
The same year Clinton resigned as Secretary of State (2013), she gave seven speeches to investment firms: three to Goldman Sachs and one each to UBS, Morgan Stanley, BOA/Merrill Lynch, and Deutsche Bank). She earned $225,000 for each speech, totaling $1,575,000.
These were among the firms that peddled toxic mortgages leading to the Great Recession of 2008 and the financial ruin of many middle- and working-class Americans. Yet while campaigning for the presidency, Clinton covered herself with the mantle of protector of the poor and struggling peoples.
But Clinton’s dishonor paled in comparison to Donald Trump’s, a man who denied construction workers their pay through a bankruptcy from which he profited, boasted of outrageous treatment of women, degraded broad groups of immigrants, and spoke unapologetically of avoiding taxes at the expense of the common good.
Then consider Trump’s response to the Khans’ speech: a belittling of the sacrifice of their son, amounting to defecation on the grave of every American who gave their life for their country.
Now honor goes lacking in the highest office of our nation.
President Trump tramples on the legitimate interests and rights of classes of people and groups of nations. He confuses leading a people and the world, with ruling a people and the world.
What, then, is an American response to the self-serving ethos promulgated by our president — an ethos that counters the first words of the U.S. Constitution: “We the people”?
Khizr and Ghazala Khan offer us a good prescription.
First, as self-governing people, we should act with honor. Honorable Americans from polar political perspectives can come together to determine what is right and true.
Secondly, we should treat the Constitution for what it is: the fabric of our country — and what really makes us the people. While the Constitution has shortcomings, it remains the world’s best model for institutionalizing and conducting democracy. It is our American blessing — a miraculous artifact from a group of imperfect “founders” who themselves proved during their Constitutional Convention, that the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts.
And in giving the Constitution its due, we the people should not reduce Americanism to standing for or singing a national anthem, or pledging allegiance to a flag, or having military prowess or national wealth. This misses the core of what makes us Americans: a set of commonly held principles. It is for these principles that Americans have given their life for their country.