Colin Powell's endorsement of Barack Obama yesterday brings to mind Obama's speech on race during the primaries: a moment in which a politician rose to the occasion to push the national political dialog beyond the ordinary bounds of presidential politics and into a much deeper discussion of (am I really about to type this?) values. I am referring not so much to Powell's endorsement itself but to his comments about Muslim Americans.
It would be generous to call Colin Powell's career checkered, from the My Lai massacre cover-up in the Vietnam war to his disastrous dog-and-pony show at the UN Security Council that paved the way for Bush's war in Iraq. Acknowledging his contribution yesterday does not imply whitewashing his past. The fact that it was, finally, an African American Republican Army general who finally stood up and denounced Republican Muslim-baiting as un-American is not surprising. Rather, it highlights the ambiguous role of the US military, which has so often been a tool of oppression beyond our borders, yet was one of the first major American institutions to racially integrate domestically, long before schools (not to mention churches which remain highly segregated to this day).
"Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer is no. That's not America. Is there something wrong with a seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing he or she could be president? Yet I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion that he is a Muslim and might have an association with terrorists. This is not the way we should be doing it in America.
I feel particularly strong about this because of a picture I saw in a magazine. It was a photo essay about troops who were serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. And one picture at the tail end of this photo essay, was of a mother at Arlington Cemetery and she had her head on the headstone of her son's grave. And as the picture focused in, you could see the writing on the headstone, and it gave his awards - Purple Heart, Bronze Star - showed that he died in Iraq, gave his date of birth, date of death, he was 20 years old. And then at the very top of the head stone, it didn't have a Christian cross. It didn't have a Star of David. It has a crescent and star of the Islamic faith.
And his name was Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan. And he was an American. He was born in New Jersey. He was fourteen years old at the time of 9/11, and he waited until he could serve his country and he gave his life."
The fact that Powell referenced a photograph to underscore his point, a photograph available online, has spurred a discussion in the blogoshpere that is moving and profound. It is important to see the actual photograph, and in this age of the Internet, we can all immediately do so here.
Generally when I think of "Internet moments," what comes to mind are examples of how shallow and callous Internet communications so frequently are. Here is the opposite: a moment which reminds us of that naive time not so long ago when many believed the Internet would bring people together rather than drive them farther apart. I am thinking not so much of the blogs themselves, but the comments of the readers. Christians, Muslims, Jews, atheists, people of all colors, gays and straights: all are speaking and, more importantly, listening.
I encourage you to take a moment and look around the Web at this discussion. You will find things so heartfelt and profound they will take your breath away, beginning with the number of people using the Web to express condolences to the family of Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan, far more than the family will be able to read. A beautiful thing.
But now I will shut up and let the commenters speak for themselves. For those of you who don't have the time to surf the Web, here are some especially poignant remarks from right here on the Huffington Post:
BabsfromKansas found a link to an obituary of Specialist Khan and posted it for everyone.
This from a Muslim, democratmilitarymom:
Thank you Colin Powell for talking about what I have been waiting to hear for months! As a practicing American-Muslim and mom of two sons currently serving in the U.S. military I have been heart broken and angry that suggestions and comments equating Muslim with terrorist or bad or evil or even worst, un-American, have been allowed to be made without correction. My family has been in this country since the 1850's and have proudly served and fought in every war since that time. I cried as I listened to Mr. Powell tell the story of Kareen Khan as I could all too readily relate to his mother's sorrow (as it is my biggest fear) and also know how so many of our countrymen do not think of us "American" because of our faith. But i was also so pleased and grateful that someone finally stood up and said, "Enough" to the terrible hate spewed by some and publicly declared that Muslim does not equal bad, and maybe, just maybe, one day we will progress enough as a country to even elect a president, who happens to be a Muslim, and not have it be an issue.
And this from a Christian, injesuswetrust:
This is too moving!!! For goodness sake God made us all, in His own image. May God in His infinite mercies forgive the sins of many of us Americans. May God also help us to love His people just as we love ourselves. Hatred sets us backwards and love moves us forward.
And this from a gay veteran. As the thread developed, one reader wrote "call me a bigot but as a solider I feel gay don't belong in the army, but u wouldn't understand unless u served," which resulted in this shockingly eloquent response:
I am an American.
I am an Army veteran.
I am a gay man.
I have heard all too often that "good Americans" (meaning people not like me) have served and died in order for people like me to lead a life that people like you might describe as being other than truly American. The fact is, people like ME -- good, decent Americans -- have served and died so that people like YOU can imagine living in a world of intolerance and discrimination. People like ME have served alongside people like YOU.
This country belongs to ALL OF US !
Comments like these make me proud to be a writer on this site. Thank you.