Monday, August 1, 2016

Human Sacrifice and Political Capital

The last national political convention I watched on TV was the Democratic one in 1968.  By 1972 I wasn't living with my parents any more and didn't have a television on all the time, and that's still true.  This time around I watched stray Stephen Colbert clips on Youtube, and listened to Democracy Now's coverage in the mornings.  I don't think I missed anything important.

The big story out of Philadelphia last week was evidently the brief speech by Khizn Khan, a Pakistani immigrant whose son Humayun was killed in action in Iraq in 2004. Khan Senior assailed Donald Trump for wanting to keep Muslim immigrants out of the US, waved around a copy of the Constitution, and said "You have sacrificed nothing and no one."

The Democrats could hardly have hoped for better political theater. Khan's speech went viral, as they say.  The American Civil Liberties Union offered free copies of the Constitution until election day.  Families of American soldiers killed in action stood with the Khans.  Trump flailed around, trying to divert attention to Khan's wife Ghazala, who stood in silence while her husband delivered his speech (but spoke up in reponse to Trump), and finally whined that "I was viciously attacked by Mr. Khan at the Democratic Convention.  Am I not allowed to respond?  Hillary voted for the Iraq War, not me!"  (Of course Trump is "allowed to respond," but it's proper to judge him on the quality of his response, which was even poorer than I'd have expected; but his normal style of attack would backfire if he used it on a Gold Star family.)  Trump's running mate Mike Pence issued a statement praising the Khans and trying to blame Obama and Clinton for Humayan's death, evidently because they'd traveled back in time and made George W. Bush start the War on Terror.

It wasn't until this morning, preparatory to writing this post, that I read the transcript of Khizr Khan's remarks at the DNC.  Khan spoke briefly, without a prepared text or a teleprompter.  As he told the New York Times, "It all flowed pretty easily, because he had been thinking about these things for quite a while, he said."  It's not a criticism of Khan to say that it shows; he wasn't there to make an argument but to make an emotional appeal, and grieving Gold Star families and fallen heroes are very effective emotional appeals.

I don't like it when any party exploits veterans or their families for political capital, and the cognitive dissonance in Khan's speech and the reaction to it is stronger than usual.  It's true that if Muslim immigration had been blocked in the past, the Khans would not be in the US and Humayan would not have gone to Iraq for our military; but in that case he would probably still be alive.  I almost feel sympathy for Trump when he pointed out correctly that Clinton supported the invasion of Iraq (though incorrectly that he didn't).  True, Trump made no sacrifices -- but neither did Bush, Obama, or Clinton.  And though it makes no difference to the pain and suffering caused the Khans by the loss of their son, I must stress again that Humayan Khan was not defending America or its freedoms.  He was a willing participant in a war of aggression that undermined America and its freedoms.
I think the main reason Trump is taking so much heat for his (unusually mild by his standards) response to the Khans is that they don't question the war.  Perhaps Khizr Khan should reread his copy of the Constitution, attending this time to the grounds it prescribes for the waging of war.

It's hard for me to make sense of a political faction that now claims Bush's war in Iraq was a bad decision (though its president not only supported it once it got going but tried to continue it after it was supposed to end), yet makes political hay out of the deaths of the soldiers who died uselessly in it.  Notice that I say "sense," because the partisan emotional appeal of Khizr Khan's speech has nothing to do with reason.  From a propaganda viewpoint, using the grieving parents of a fallen soldier to attack the enemy candidate makes perfect sense.  I don't blame the DNC for using the Khans, I only insist on my reservations about what that use means.

I'm also struck by the oddity of the Khans supporting Hillary Clinton, who did support the invasion of Iraq and every war since -- including some, like an attack on Syria, that didn't pan out -- as if she offered a real alternative to Trump.  The only sense in which she is an alternative is that she'll allow American Muslims to kill and die in her service.  That's equality!

Neither party is interested in the deaths of the Iraqis, Afghans, Libyans, and others killed by our weapons in our unjustifiable wars.  The sacrifices they made, or had made for them by US fiat, don't count.  Defeating Trump in November isn't likely to end the sacrifices, either of US families or of the victims of US foreign policy abroad.