Everyone–or at least all of America–seems to be talking about Khizr Khan’s speech at the Democratic National Convention.
Am I the only person who found Khizr Khan’s message depressing rather than uplifting? I understand the need to put Donald Trump in his place, and sympathize with the desire to stick it to him. And yes, there was something inspiring about the spirit if not the letter of Khan’s speech.
But as for the content of the speech, it hit all the wrong notes. Translated, it seemed to be saying the following:
Now that I’ve sacrificed my son on the altar of your foreign policy, paying for my family’s citizenship rights with ‘undivided loyalty’ to the state, I’d appreciate it if you would respect the rights we’ve purchased in this way, as promised in your Constitution.
The message comes straight out of the middle class Pakistani ethos of servility, obedience, and self-abnegation: respect from others is the ultimate value, a value to be achieved by means of assiduous commitment to altruistic self-sacrifice. The greater the sacrifice, the greater the respect; hence an untimely, altruistic death ought to confer complete respect.
But with all due respect, a message of “sacrifice” and “undivided loyalty” to the state is precisely one that no one ought to be valorizing, and that no one needs to hear. No one seems to have the heart to tell Khizr Khan that his son died in a war that was one more in a long chain of bloody “mistakes” made by a foreign policy establishment that thrives on the indulgence of families like his. Nor does anyone have the heart to tell him that his son’s enlistment in the army was itself a mistake–a mistake that not only cost his life, but led him to a meaningless death in the middle of nowhere. But maybe someone should. It wouldn’t be pleasant, but it would certainly break the spell cast on the Khans by the mantras of sacrifice and loyalty.
A better speech would have looked both parties in the face, waved the son’s bloody shirt directly at them, and extracted a promise from the Democrats for a less interventionist foreign policy, starting in January 2017. But what are the chances of such a policy with Hillary Clinton at the helm?
In any case, like it or not, the revised version of Trump’s proposed policy didn’t violate the Constitution. The first version of the policy barred all Muslims from entering the country, but having hastily blurted it out, Trump quickly realized the mistake he’d made, and offered a revised version. The second version permitted Muslim citizens to enter, but prohibited Muslim non-citizens from entering.
Both versions are unjust and abhorrent, but the fact remains that the Constitution doesn’t prohibit a discriminatory (or even racist) immigration or visa policy from being applied to non-citizens coming to the U.S. from abroad. So if Trump had borrowed Khan’s copy of the Constitution, there’s nothing in it that would have explained why the considered version of his proposal was unconstitutional. Khan’s invocation of the Constitution is just another case of Trump’s opponents’ throwing the kitchen sink at him in the hope that something or other will stick. But if simple truths won’t stick, neither will legalistic falsehoods. Those who want to ensure Trump’s defeat in November need to return to the drawing board and find a different approach.
That said, Americans should stop looking to Muslim Americans like Khan for the feel-good quality that such “undivisibly loyal” Muslims seem to provide. And Muslims like Khan need to stop playing the enabling role whereby Muslim Americans purchase respect from America by proving that they’re willing to throw their lives away for the American war machine. What we need instead of either feel good nostrums or self-sacrificial servility is a hard look at our intervention-happy foreign policy, and a serious attempt to figure out how the hell to change it. The point is not to appreciate how many different kinds of people we’ve managed to bury in Arlington Cemetery, but to stop having to bury so many people there in the first place.