In Khizr Khan’s inspirational story, a mighty river flows

Khizr Khan, father of fallen U.S. Army Capt. Humayun S.M. Khan, speaks as his wife Ghazala listens at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, July 28, 2016. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Maybe sometimes it takes a stranger to remind us of our greatness and of the things we hold dear as a nation, but which we take for granted. Maybe it takes someone like Khizr Khan, a Pakistani immigrant who chased his American dream and is living it.

You remember Khan. At the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in 2016, the Gold Star father of a Muslim U.S. soldier killed in combat in Iraq fixed a stern gaze at the television camera as if it were a portal into the American consciousness.

With his wife Ghazala beside him, Khan pulled a copy of the U.S. Constitution from his jacket and ripped then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump for his proposed Muslim travel ban and his rhetoric on immigrants. Then Khan famously asked if Trump had even read the founding document.

“I will gladly lend you my copy,” he said as the audience roared. “In this document, look for the words liberty and equal protection of the law.”

An electric moment, it rocketed Khan to national prominence.

As we now know is his standard impulse, Trump took to Twitter to fire back. Never mind that attacking the grieving parents of a U.S. Army captain who had given his life for his country seemed outrageously undignified, beneath what we expect of someone wanting to be president.

Khan wasn’t surprised, he told me before an appearance last Saturday morning at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Austin: “We had known (Trump’s) caliber and his mentality and his lack of empathy, his lack of compassion.”

Today of course, Trump is the president of the United States. Khan isn’t shrinking from the spotlight, either. He is traveling across the country with a newly published book, “An American Family: A Memoir of Hope and Sacrifice.” The event at St. Andrew’s, where he spoke to a few hundred people about the book and about his life, was his 175th event since that fateful, life-changing night in Philadelphia.

“I’d rather be with my grandkids,” Khan told me with a warm smile. “But it’s for a good purpose — to share a message of unity and hope. We are lacking that now.”

But not Khan. His faith in America remains resolute. “The book,” he said, “is a tribute from (our family) to the goodness of America. We are expressing our gratitude.”

Later inside the school auditorium, Khan, wearing a dark suit and a Gold Star lapel pin, deftly wove his life story before a rapt, diverse audience. A Harvard-educated lawyer he spoke in a low, soothing timbre, and reminded them that among the things Americans cherish most are the rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights and the Constitution.

“Human dignities,” he called them. “The founding document gave me these dignities. In Pakistan I did not have freedom of religion, freedom of press, freedom to address my grievances in a court of law and due process.”

Life led from a seat on a small cot at his rural Pakistani home with no electricity to his current home of Charlottesville – yes, that Charlottesville in Virginia, where a rally of white supremacists exploded in deadly violence August 12.

In the moonlit darkness of his Pakistani home, Khan’s grandfather offered the young boy wise counsel, paraphrasing one of Rumi’s seven advices. “He told me, ‘So what if you are thirsty. Be a river for others,’” Khan said.

In Charlottesville, three days after the ugly violence, the Khans joined other families in walking the same route the neo-Nazis had taken. Like his grandfather, Khizr Khan had his own lesson to impart.

“We showed our children that these were not American values,” he said. “We stood together to show them that this is the real America.”

Some Americans have blamed Trump’s rhetoric about immigrants for emboldening white supremacist protesters. Khan didn’t address the criticism.

The Khans didn’t intend to accept the Democratic convention’s invitation to speak. Confidantes had warned them there would be backlash, and they were right. Khan receives much hate mail – most of it unsigned and with no return address – and he must travel with great precaution.

But they could not ignore the concerns of their Muslim neighbors’ children, who with Trump’s talk about banning Muslims from entering the U.S., were reluctant to attend school because they feared their parents would be gone — deported – when they returned.

“They would ask, ‘Is this possible? But we were born here,’” Khan said.

In some ways, Khan’s appearance at St. Andrews bore some of the hallmarks of both a celebrity appearance and an inspirational seminar for people thirsty for hope. A long line of people waited to have their photo taken with Khan, who exuded a quiet and gracious humility.

At times audience members fought back tears. At others they rollicked with laughter. The idea of holding up the Constitution had been an afterthought, conceived in a taxi on the way to the Democratic convention. Khan described a comical scene like something out of The Three Stooges: in rehearsing pulling the pocket-size Constitution from his jacket, he displayed the back cover, ruining the intended dramatic effect.

“Practice,” Ghazala scolded him.

In Austin and across the country, at a time when political civility has gone missing, at a time when some in America vilify those who don’t look like them, Khan might be the unlikeliest of rock stars, spinning a love poem to democratic ideals.

If he is thirsty, he is not letting on. Instead, he is a river to others.

 

 

From Cornyn, a border security plan less Trumpian, more Texas-friendly

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn points to a poster with an image of barrier on the Texas-Mexico border as he announces his border security plan Thursday on Capitol Hill. (AP Photo)

For President Trump, a border wall is a signature piece of his domestic agenda, of such magnitude to him politically that he fumed with Mexican President Peña Nieto and pleaded with him to stop saying Mexico wouldn’t pay for it. More on that later.

For U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, however, a border wall is important, but it’s not everything.

“It’s not the whole story,” the Republican Texas senator said Thursday as he presented his $15 billion border security plan that relies more on personnel and technology and less on a wall than the president might like.

As Maria Recio reported in the American-Statesman, Cornyn’s border plan calls for a layered strategy of walls, fencing, levees and technology. Called the Building America’s Trust Act, the bill would increase the number of federal agents at ports of entry and on the border, as well as add more immigration judges and prosecutors. It also would pour more resources into state and local efforts to fight drug trafficking.

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Cornyn’s plan brings a more reasoned alternative to Trump’s one-size-fits-all, build a border wall approach. It is also likely to go over better with Texans who oppose a wall for a number of reasons, not the least of which is some people just don’t think it’s necessary. Many of those critics live along the border, a point Cornyn subtly referenced when he said federal authorities should consult local officials in shaping border strategy.

That’s something you hear a lot in South Texas and up and down the border, where some residents feel they’ve become a requisite photo op for politicians who swoop in for an hour or two to assess border security — as if that’s all it takes — then return to their respective homes in faraway states. That’s what Trump the presidential candidate did in a 2015 visit to Laredo.

It’ll be interesting to see how Cornyn’s bill progresses and whether it receives bipartisan support. As a border senator and majority whip, he holds considerable sway in Congress and on the fortunes of any border security measure.

‘You cannot say that to the press.’

Trump paved a path to the White House in no small measure on his boastful promise to build a “beautiful” border wall.

“And who’s going to pay for it?” Trump would ask delirious supporters at campaign rallies.

“Mexico will!” they would roar in response.

But leaked transcripts of a January phone call between Trump and Peña Nieto reveal the president knew Mexico would never pay for the wall and that his demand for payment was just a political play. More importantly, he wanted the Mexican president to stop saying publicly that Mexico wouldn’t pay for a wall.

Trump acknowledged that his public posturing on the wall had left him in an extremely tight spot politically.

“The fact is we are both in a little bit of a political bind, because I have to have Mexico pay for the wall – I have to,” Trump told Peña Nieto in the call.

When Peña Nieto kept insisting that Mexico wouldn’t pay, Trump said: “You cannot say that to the press. The press is going to go with that and I cannot live with that.”

Trump later said the border wall is not all that important – remarkable considering all his bluster about it.

“Believe it or not, this is the least important thing that we are talking about, but politically this might be the most important (thing we) talk about,” Trump said.

Trump has steered away more recently from demanding that Mexico pay. He’s asked Congress for a $1.6 billion down payment for the wall, which the House has approved. Mexico will “reimburse” the U.S., Trump has said, without offering details on how that might happen.

That all sounds fuzzy. One thing is clear from that January phone call, however: Mexico won’t pay for the wall, and Trump knows it.

That means — and let’s face it, we knew this all along — American taxpayers will foot the bill, which the Department of Homeland Security says could hit $21.6 billion. Will Trump’s supporters still cheer?

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