It was a warning that America chose to ignore, but a moment remembered long after the speeches of career politicians were done and forgotten.
Four summers ago, in the lead-up to the pivotal 2016 US election, Khizr Khan stood before the Democratic national convention in Philadelphia and told how his son, an American Muslim and army captain, died in Iraq. He had a question for Donald Trump, the Republican nominee threatening to ban Muslim immigrants.
“Have you even read the United States constitution?” he demanded, holding a copy aloft, as he delivered a seven-minute tour de force that became the emotional heart of one of the biggest weeks of the election campaign.
When Democrats convene for their 2020 convention next week, albeit virtually, Khan will again be taking part. His darkest fears about Trump and the mortal threat he poses to the constitution have been realised, he says. But he retains faith in America and finds hope in Joe Biden, the Democratic presumptive nominee, who understands what it is to endure the death of a child.
The president of the United States is a father figure, who must be compassionate to the suffering and pains of the nation
“Losing a family member creates a hole in the parents’ and family’s hearts which never fills,” the 70-year-old lawyer told the Guardian in a phone interview from his home in Charlottesville, Virginia, as he recalled he and his wife, Ghazala, meeting the former vice-president. “We could see that he could feel the hole in our heart and we could feel the hole in his heart, and that connection has been everlasting.
“The president of the United States is a father figure, a figure that must be compassionate to the suffering and pains of the nation. Joe Biden has that element. He has that character. To our disappointment, the current president does not. We had hoped that Trump would find somewhere along the way that element of character. Alas, that never happened, but Joe Biden has that element.”
One of 10 children, Khan grew up in a small village in Pakistan and met Ghazala while studying in Lahore. When he was 24 they left for Dubai, then eventually the US, inspired, like so many immigrants, by the American dream. He became a US citizen in 1986 and gained law degrees from Harvard University and the University of Missouri.
Their son, Humayun, 27, was killed protecting his men from suicide bombers in Iraq in 2004. He is buried at Arlington national cemetery, Virginia, and was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart. In 2016, with Trump running an overtly anti-immigrant campaign, the Khans, a gold star family who had valued their privacy, found themselves thrust into the national spotlight.
Khan says of the Democratic convention: “We were nervous as any ordinary person would be because, regardless of where you come from, you don’t get to speak at such events with such bright lights and such a crowd often, so you never develop 100% confidence. You’re always shaky and you’re always nervous in your heart and you try to manage that as much as you can.”
With Ghazala gripping the lectern tight lest she be overwhelmed by grief, Khan’s words stopped jaded party members in their tracks, some wiping away tears as he spoke.
He had a rhetorical question for Trump: “Have you ever been to Arlington cemetery? Go look at the graves of brave patriots who died defending the United States of America. You will see all faiths, genders and ethnicities. You have sacrificed nothing and no one.”
Trump delivered an angry retort, suggesting that Khan had “no right” to criticise him, claiming that he too has made “a lot of sacrifices” and asking why Ghazala had stood silent beside her husband. “She had nothing to say,” Trump said. “Maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say.” It was a preview of all the bullying to come.
Looking back, Khan says: “Donald Trump wasn’t aware of what this mother is going through at this time. Her son’s picture and the tribute to her son has been paid and he could have simply looked the other way, but that is proof of the calibre of the person. This person was unfit, remained unfit. We had hoped that the office of the presidency would emerge him from that pettiness, from that small-mindedness. But he has not.”
The Khans refused to be cowed, giving a series of media interviews. Yet despite widespread condemnation by military veterans and others, Trump went on to win a stunning upset over Hillary Clinton. The Khans received hate mail and were targeted by conservative media. Then came a call from outgoing Vice-President Biden, inviting them to his home in Washington in December 2016.
We felt so heartened by his expression. It’s only military parents that know what it takes to send a loved one in harm’s way
“He recognised us as we entered the residence and he came forward, escorted us to the back office,” Khan recounts. “He introduced his entire family that was in the pictures on the mantle of the fireplace in the back office, with me and Ghazala standing next to him and him pointing out who everybody was. We were just so touched by that gesture of kindness and affection and empathy.”
When Biden showed a photo of his son Beau, an Iraq war veteran who died from brain cancer in 2015 at the age of 46, the Khans felt a connection. “We felt so heartened by his expression. It’s only military parents and families that know what it takes to send a loved one in harm’s way. He was in full recognition and realisation of that aspect of our life.
“Then he did something that even today remains remains really heartening to us. He placed one hand on my shoulder, the other hand on Ghazala’s shoulder. In a huddle form, he said to us, ‘Folks, I am your family. If you are ever worried about anything, reach out, I stand with you, don’t worry, be strong and we will deal with this all together.’ Ghazala and I looked at each other and literally we felt as if a burden had been lifted from our shoulders.
“That is the character of Joe Biden. He wasn’t a candidate. He wasn’t running for office. He had completed eight years as vice-president successfully but that is the character, that is the person. As a military parent he has amazing empathy, amazing compassion and respect.”
When Biden asked for the Khans’ support in the 2020 Democratic primary, he continues, “we had no hesitation at all to say yes, we stand with you, we have your back. That is what, to us, America needs: an empathetic, a decent, a passionate caring human being like Joe Biden. That is why we support him.”
In Khan’s view, Trump embodies the opposite of these qualities as his home city, Charlottesville, discovered three years ago this week. A march by white supremacists and Ku Klux Klan members brandishing shields, clubs and guns led to violent clashes and the death of counter-protester Heather Heyer.
Khan says: “As I went to pick up some books, I saw the traffic was blocked and there was a procession passing and, very much concerned about my safety, I saw people were standing outside their cars and I sat in because of the concern for being recognised. I kind of slumped into the seat and there was no way that I could take a U-turn because the traffic was totally blocked.
“So I had rolled the window down to hear what was going on and I heard the chants: totally un-American vulgarities were being shouted. I just slumped and was worried about my wellbeing and hoping and praying that this moment shall pass. And of course, to my horror, a young woman was killed.”
Trump infamously claimed that there were “very fine people” on both sides of the demonstration. Khan comments: “Donald Trump declared support for the white supremacists and we were disappointed. All my beloved city wanted was peace and quiet and back to normalcy but it was a horrifying experience.
Among the Republicans – I call them mute Republicans – I still have hope that they have a little ray of patriotism
“Time after time after time he has proven to not represent what makes America great and prosperous, and that is diversity – diversity of people, diversity of values, and he has continued to pursue an agenda that has never been good for America. Divisiveness weakens us. Racism weakens us.
“He has continued to divide by his rhetoric, by his politics, because he sees that is the only way left for him to continue to speak against immigrants, against minorities, against non-whites, and that is not what has made America a beacon of hope in the rest of the world.”
A year after Charlottesville came another shocking chapter in the Trump presidency: a zero-tolerance policy that prosecuted undocumented immigrants at the US-Mexico border, separating thousands of children from their parents. It was denounced by watchdogs as a gross violation of human rights.
Khan took it hard. “I can never forget it, it, still burdens my soul when I think of those children in cages. I have grandchildren of those ages and I see their faces in the faces of those separated from their family and the small children in the cages. I cannot forget that this could have ever happened in a country like United States, which is a nation of immigrants, and how horrific that policy of Trump had been and remains in force.”
Khan believes that Trump’s defeat by Biden in November is imperative. “America cannot have four more years of this mentality that continues to divide us. It’s selfish and self-centred so that anything and everything is from what benefits him personally.”
Some observers worry that Trump is seeking to exploit the coronavirus pandemic by discrediting mail-in balloting, sabotaging the post office and disenfranchising millions of voters. If the result goes against him, will he claim the election was rigged and effectively barricade himself inside the White House?
“I do worry about that,” Khan admits. “Trump has the tendency of being an authoritarian and may damage the American fabric, American democracy permanently because that is what our adversaries and his biggest benefactor, Russia, wants. But among the Republicans – I call them mute Republicans – I still have hope that they have a little ray of patriotism and, for the country, they will stand up and tell Trump to move forward.”
As the Cassandra of the 2016 convention, Khan takes no pleasure in having his prophecies vindicated. But it was also a catalyst for him: he got to work, buoyed by the immigrant’s idealism, patriotism and faith in the American experiment. He has now carried out 280 speaking engagements in America and beyond and will address – virtually – the Veterans and Military Families Council at the Democratic convention on Tuesday.
“I feel comfortable speaking about our rule of law, about the human dignity that is enshrined in our constitution, and my experience as an immigrant coming from a country that had been ruled by the dictators, by authoritarians, to a country where the Bill of Rights is mine as a human being.
“I remember the experience of becoming a citizen. I paused at the door of the court before I entered to take the oath of citizenship and I reflected where I had come from and where I’m about to go. Very clearly that image and that sentiment is seared in my soul, in my heart. I could have never dreamed of having those dignities that are enshrined in our constitution. So I continue to speak.”