Colin Powell, Kareem R. Khan, and being American

I’ll break my self-imposed silence on further discussion of the presidential campaign for this:

The news of the day is the news and it’s all over the place. This is not the place to discuss that in full, you can go anywhere else for it.

But to quote two key sections of Powell’s statements today — first, on the show:

I’m also troubled by, not what Senator McCain says, but what members of the party say. And it is permitted to say such things as, “Well, you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim.” Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim, he’s a Christian. He’s always been a Christian. But the really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer’s no, that’s not America. Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president? Yet, I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion, “He’s a Muslim and he might be associated with terrorists.” This is not the way we should be doing it in America. I feel strongly about this particular point because of a picture I saw in a magazine. It was a photo essay about troops who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. And one picture at the tail end of this photo essay was of a mother in Arlington Cemetery, and she had her head on the headstone of her son’s grave. And as the picture focused in, you could see the writing on the headstone. And it gave his awards–Purple Heart, Bronze Star–showed that he died in Iraq, gave his date of birth, date of death. He was 20 years old. And then, at the very top of the headstone, it didn’t have a Christian cross, it didn’t have the Star of David, it had crescent and a star of the Islamic faith. And his name was Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan, and he was an American. He was born in New Jersey. He was 14 years old at the time of 9/11, and he waited until he can go serve his country, and he gave his life. Now, we have got to stop polarizing ourselves in this way.

Later, outside the studio:

We have two wars. We have economic problems. We have health problems. We have education problems. We have infrastructure problems. We have problems around the world with our allies. So those are the problems the American people wanted to hear about, not about Mr. Ayers, not about who’s a Muslim or who’s not a Muslim. Those kinds of images going out on Al-Jazeera are killing us around the world.

And we have got to say to the world, it doesn’t make any difference who you are or what you are, if you’re an American, you’re an American. And this business, for example, of the congressman from Minnesota who’s going around saying, “Let’s examine all congressmen to see who is pro-America or not pro-America” — we have got to stop this kind of nonsense, pull ourselves together and remember that our great strength is in our unity and in our diversity. And so, that really was driving me.

And to focus on people like Mr. Ayers and these trivial issues, for the purpose of suggesting that somehow Mr. Obama would have some kind of terrorist inclinations, I thought that was over the top. It was beyond just good political fighting back and forth. I think it went beyond. And to sort of throw in this little Muslim connection, you know, “He’s a Muslim and, my goodness, he’s a terrorist” — it was taking root. And we can’t judge our people and we can’t hold our elections on that kind of basis.

The NY Times has a brief story on Kareem Khan here. To quote it:

Mr. Khan graduated from Southern Regional High School in Manahawkin in 2005, and enlisted in the Army a few months later, spurred by his memories of the 9/11 terror attacks. “His Muslim faith did not make him not want to go. It never stopped him,” his father, Feroze Khan, told the Gannett News Service in a story printed shortly after his death. “He looked at it that he’s American and he has a job to do.”

Kareem Khan

His gravestone

I almost feel I need add nothing more. But at the same time, I must.

I have spoken before on my sense of the profundity of the decision my father made as he chose to pursue a career in the military. I do not wish to speak for him, of course, that would be very untoward, and I hope he does not mind what I say here. But my sense of it has been — even more so with time — that among all the other factors that played into his decision, to do so against the backdrop of history at that time is remarkable. World War II was just within his own living memory as a young boy. His uncle lost his life in the European theater. The Cold War was well entrenched and the threat of nuclear destruction was in the air.

To make this decision at that time in his life, to pursue a career as a military officer, with all the risks it implies alongside the sense of duty, patriotism and honor, is no small thing. Not at all. And being my father’s son means I have seen at close quarters how all this played out over the years with all that my father is, his intelligence, faith, humor and humanity. I need add no more, to that which is, again, self-evident.

In Kareem Khan I see an echo of my father’s decision. A young man considers his path in life, shaped by the world he is in, the way he has been raised, the country he calls his own. He makes his decision and carries it out to the best of his ability. His story, sadly, ends soon after that comparative point in my father’s life and work. We will never know what might have been.

It is not too sentimental of me to say I am writing this while tearing up a touch. I do so out of three reasons, though — out of sorrow for what happened to Khan, out of anger at how his sacrifice has been so sadly — if, I can but hope, unintentionally — belittled by those voices that Powell notes, by the assumptions that underpin it.

And finally, out of pride at what Powell has so clearly, forcefully said on the question of patriotism, differences in faith and being American. Why should I restate what he has spelled out so clearly? What could anyone say in response to this beyond agreement? I admit I find it hard to think anyone would or could, not without betraying some utter misunderstanding of that which is the ideal of America — and that ideal may not be reality but why should that mean the ideal is any less valuable?

I have said before, and I repeat again — the American experiment is not guaranteed to succeed, but it continues and, I believe, it thrives. It contains multitudes unimagined even by Walt Whitman, say. When Powell says “our great strength is in our unity and in our diversity” that is no canard, that is essential. I would not have it any other way, never — and I speak as a religious agnostic.

Much about the presidential election-based dialogue and discussion of the past two weeks has left me, I admit, fundamentally downbeat. I am not crushed but I am concerned. I fear all the assumptions being made all around are the worst ones, and I have circumscribed my own regular trawling of political news and opinion sites for that reason. Call it self-defense or call it distraction.

This feels like a breath of fresh air, a necessary pause for sanity and decency. Remember it, no matter your choice of candidate, and ask yourself that question Powell asked, to quote it again:

…it is permitted to say such things as, “Well, you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim.” Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim, he’s a Christian. He’s always been a Christian. But the really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer’s no, that’s not America.

No indeed.

Discussion of the California propositions to resume tomorrow. Political Blogger Alliance

2 Responses to “Colin Powell, Kareem R. Khan, and being American”

  1. chlai88 Says:

    I guess we’re all moved by Colin Powell’s way overdue reminders. I hope it gets more people thinking and discussing what Colin Powell has said.

  2. Rutherford Lawson Says:

    Ned, you’re not the only one who was moved to write about Powell’s powerful endorsement of Obama. I’m glad you broke your self-imposed silence. This message cannot be told or read by enough people. The survival of our country as a decent place to live, depends upon it.

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