The morning after Khizr Khan delivered his stirring speech at the Democratic National Convention, he surely knew what was to come. He had, after all, managed to both honor his fallen son while rebuking Donald Trump, the World’s Most Perpetually Uninteresting, Aggrieved Man. The notion that a man—a Muslim, of all sorts—had the gall to call him out, to shame him, before all the world, was an unimaginable offense.
Trump responded in kind. In an interview with George Stephanopoulos over the weekend, Trump insinuated that Khan’s wife, Ghazala, who stood silently by her husband’s side during his bracing speech, “wasn’t allowed to have anything to say.” Then he equated his own sacrifices as a businessman to the Khans’s. Mrs. Khan, in response, wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post, in which she defended her choice not to speak—America, she asserted, felt her pain—and reminded readers that Trump “doesn’t know what the word sacrifice means.” Trump has continued to insist that the story “is not about Mr. Khan…but rather RADICAL ISLAMIC TERRORISM and the U.S.”
There’s another set of optics to consider here: is this—both Khan’s DNC speech and the follow-up interviews and responses to Trump in recent days—the first time that many Americans have ever heard a brown man talk, at length, about patriotism, war, and sacrifice? (More churlishly, I wonder whether this marks the first time most Americans have ever listened to a brown man talk at any length, ever, about anything). For me—an Indian-American, not a Pakistani-American like the Khans—the sight of a still-grieving, middle-aged South Asian uncle and auntie, channeling their hopes, dreams, anguish, and rage, as they take the stage in one of the most nakedly revealing moment for brown people in U.S. history, was overwhelming.
In recent days, I’ve come to wonder whether Khan’s decision to move from the private sanctuary of grief to the most public forum conceivable was directed at their fellow South Asians just as much as it was at Trump and the Republicans—an urgent, at times uncomfortable call to the aunties and uncles of America to rethink their notion of sacrifice. The children of immigrants—people like the late Captain Khan—often hear about the lives unlived their parents gave up to come to the West, the pain of cultural and racial dislocation, the ominous uncertainty of an Otherness imposed, all for them. We’re used to bearing their burden, and feel obligated to do right by them.
What the Khans have done, I suggest, is radically re-define the foundations of the immigrant sacrifice. One can, and should, be deeply skeptical of the purpose of the war, particularly war circa 2004. But supporting it, taking part in it, remains one of the starkest ways of expressing a very muscular sort of patriotism. It’s not, in my experience, a sort of patriotism I’m used to seeing and hearing extolled by men like Khizr Khan. But hearing him speak last Thursday night, I heard him shattering the illusion that brown people can sit by idly in their comfortable suburban neighborhoods outside Houston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York, as if the world and its problems stopped being their concern once they made it to their McMansions. Nothing in this immigrant dream, even after that dream is realized, is impregnable, he seemed to say.
Trump, his instinct for self-preservation-via-tweet triggered, sees nothing wrong with attacking the Khans. Meanwhile, most right-thinking people—Democrat or Republican, hawk or dove—seem to have heard in Khan’s words a call for America to assert the best possible version of itself.