Good and evil — Khizr Khan’s book

Good and evil. Such black-and-white Manichaeanism is so unfashionable. Isn’t everything shades of grey — the color of sophisticated thinking?

Not always.

This is prompted by reading Khizr Khan’s book, An American Family. Previously I’d written of a radio interview I’d found deeply moving. Then one of my book groups chose Khan’s book.

Khan was the Muslim-American who spoke at the 2016 Democratic convention. His soldier son Humayun had been killed in Iraq. He spoke of the American values his son had died for — values being trashed by Trump’s campaign. Khan doubted Trump had ever even read the U.S. Constitution — and offered to lend him his own well-thumbed pocket copy, holding it up.

In response, true to form, Trump slimed Khan and his family.

Khan’s book tells his life story. Born in Pakistan (not the best of countries), he was inspired by reading in school America’s Declaration of Independence and Constitution. “I was like a lonesome islander,” he writes, “who’d found a bottle washed up on the beach, a secret script tucked inside that told of a wonderland, a fantastical place that existed, improbably and perhaps impossibly, far across the ocean.” Yet he actually never dreamed of coming here. A succession of serendipitous jobs (Khan trained as a lawyer) landed him in America. He long imagined he’d return to Pakistan, where he’d be a big man; but finally decided he’d rather be a free man here. By then, he felt he and his family belonged here — a place “more compassionate, more welcoming, more tolerant than the places we had left. Than anywhere else we’d ever been.”


Khan does love the Constitution, that he held up in his speech. Especially the Fourteenth Amendment (my favorite part too, as I’ve written) with its guarantee of equal protection of the law. Khan recognizes we still have far to go to fully realize this ideal. But to him the ideal means everything — coming as he did from a society where such ideals really meant nothing. And having come to America with nothing (except his talents), he really does feel the country lived up to its ideals in his own case, opening its arms in welcome, raising him up in human dignity, at every stage of his life here.

Khan quotes President Reagan’s farewell address, to which he’d listened raptly. Reagan once more invoked the “shining city upon a hill” metaphor, from Pilgrim leader John Winthrop. “I’ve spoken,” Reagan said, “of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw . . . in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than the oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace, a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and heart to get here.”

Khan remarks: “Such a beautiful vision.” And what a contrast against the blighted vision of Reagan’s current unworthy successor. “Trump’s city,” Khan writes, is “a frightened isolated fortress, walled off from Mexicans and Muslims, from all the others . . . . crumbling and weak, a dreary landscape implicit in his slogan: to make America great again, one had to assume that it was not in fact great now.”

One expects a father to write glowingly of his lost son. But the Humanyun who comes through in these pages was surely a great credit to his adopted homeland. One day in Iraq a cab drove into Humayun’s compound. Likely a suicide bomber; best to assume so and open fire. But Humayun insisted on making sure it wasn’t just innocent people who’d gotten lost. He took ten steps toward the cab. It blew up and killed him.

Those ten steps, Khizr Khan writes, were where all the American values, which had been instilled in Humayun, came together. “Not religious values — human values.”

Have we forgotten them? How could we have elected a vile creep who, Khan writes, is “loosing a wildness upon the land, stirring the worst of human nature.” Eviscerating America’s fundamental values, that Khan so eloquently writes about.

It’s good versus evil. No grey.

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