This past week’s Democratic National Convention provided many dramatic moments and stirring oratory from prominent national figures. For me, the most poignant and powerful presentation came not from a famous personality or polished public speaker, but from Mr. Khizir Khan.
Mr. Khan is not a politician and far from a famous national figure. Born in Pakistan, he immigrated to Boston in 1980 and obtained a Masters degree from Harvard. He is currently a legal consultant living in Charlottesville Virginia. His son, Captain Humayun Khan, is one of 14 American Muslims who have died in military service since the September 11 terrorist attacks. Captain Khan died in a car bombing incident in Iraq in 2004, apparently sacrificing himself to save the lives of his comrades. For his service, he received both the Bronze Star and Purple Heart and was buried with full military honours in Arlington National Cemetery.
Addressing the convention with his wife standing quietly at his side, Mr. Khan managed, in a few minutes of powerful, simple narrative, to capture both the great promise and great threat to the American system of government.
He challenged Donald Trump directly. “Have you even read the United States constitution?” he said, looking directly into the camera and defiantly waving a copy of the document. It was a truly astounding moment: a Pakistani-born, Muslim immigrant calling out an established, mainstream and powerful figure on the basis of their presumably shared societal values. Amazingly, he topped it with an even more powerful statement a few minutes later, when he said, with the conviction and veracity that can only come from a bereaved parent: “You have sacrificed nothing”.
With those four words, he reminded everyone listening that the strength of American civilization has come from the promise provided by the principles and rights articulated in their constitution, and the willingness of its citizens to defend them. Over the centuries, that promise has attracted people from all parts of the world and of all ethnic backgrounds who sought to escape persecution and oppression of various forms and, critically, were willing to not simply work hard, but to sacrifice personally for the preservation of those principles. With those words, he didn’t simply establish the right of so-called minority groups to be part of that society, he actually elevated them above those who have been part of American society longer, but who do not fully understand or truly embrace the founding principles. Full membership requires commitment and sacrifice. Mr. Khan passionately made the point that, like many, he’s paid his dues, but not all have.
In the midst of the rancor and extremist demagoguery that has characterized this recent election campaign, it’s tempting to disparage the American system of government and lose hope for its future. It’s worth recalling what actually happened in colonial America in the late eighteenth century, leading up to the constitutional congress, Declaration of Independence and, eventually, American Revolution.
Essentially, thirteen British colonies who had, since their initial establishment, become culturally disparate, economically diverse and fiercely independent decided it was in their mutual best interests to elect and send delegates to a series of conferences to discuss means by which they might establish more effective political relationships with Great Britain, at that time the greatest military power in the world. The colonies and delegates varied greatly in their goals and perspectives. Some saw it necessary to achieve complete independence, at whatever cost. Some were committed pacifists (even on religious grounds) who considered themselves British subjects and advocated for continued rule under the King and parliament, but with more refined political and economic ties. To be even discussing these matters was treasonous, and the delegates were taking considerable personal risk, to say nothing of being away from family and home for months at a time.
The accounts of those proceedings provide fascinating and instructive studies of what is possible when strong, diverse personalities are united by an abiding desire to promote the common good of their families and peoples. The delegates were certainly committed, courageous, strong-willed and intelligent, critical thinkers. They were articulate communicators, shrewd, sensitive to deception and not easily duped. Many of them were well versed in political theory, philosophy and world history. What ultimately allowed them to be successful and to establish common and effective agreements were two key attributes: they shared an abiding respect for each other, and out of that respect came a willingness to listen, truly listen, to each other’s perspective.
And what success they achieved! Although it can be argued that they have never been fully realized, who can argue that the principles set forward in the Declaration of Independence and implemented in the American Constitution are as great an articulation of what an independent and righteous people might achieve as anything that’s been written.
The second paragraph of the Declaration sets out the justification and vision:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
It continues to set out their intention in clear and unambiguous terms:
“We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do.
It ends with a rather sublime statement wherein they each personally commit to the principles they have declared and, critically, to each other:
And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”
In signing the document on July 4 1776 in Philadelphia, those 56 delegates, still British citizens at the time, were fundamentally committing treason, punishable by death. It’s worth noting that, at the time, there was no government, no army and no clear means to do any of things described. This was no arms-length commitment. They were taking unimaginable personal risks. The Constitution, which restates the principles and outlines the form of government that would hopefully achieve these lofty goals, wasn’t signed into law until Sept. 17 1787, and not ratified until June 21 1788, almost 12 years after the signing of the Declaration, and after those delegates and many of their countrymen had endured the sacrifices of the Revolutionary War.
The contrast between what those courageous delegates achieved so many years ago stands in rather stark contrast to the fear-mongering and petty dialogue that is currently on display. It also provides inspiring insights for any government, organization or group struggling to find effective solutions despite opposing perspectives and backgrounds. In the end, we advance not by capitulation, but by thoughtful, informed and respectful compromise. Compromise, in turn, requires an element of sacrifice. As Mr. Khan so effectively reminds us, we earn our place in a free society through sacrifices, both great and small.
Anthony J. Sanfilippo, MD, FRCP(C)
Undergraduate Medical Education
For those interested in some very readable accounts of the people and proceedings of those constitutional conferences:
John Adams by David McCullough. Simon and Schuster, 2001.
Founding Brothers by Joseph P. Ellis. Vintage Books, 2000.
Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson. Simon and Schuster, 2003.
Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham. Random House, 2012.