I am told that middle age in the United States is about 35, give or take a year or two. That is the average median age of everyone in the country.
So most Americans alive today were not alive in 1977 when the Nazi Party, swastikas and all, announced that they would march victoriously through Skokie, Illinois. They chose Skokie because lots of Jews lived there. More than half of Skokie was Jewish. The Nazi Party wanted to march there because thousands of those Jews had survived the Nazi-run death camps of World War II. They really wanted to push hatred right into the faces of those they hated.
America has its history of race hatred and religious intolerance. There was a time when some members of Congress would never have been elected without the support of the Ku Klux Klan. The voice of Billie Holiday still haunts us with the song “Strange Fruit” and lyrics about beautiful poplar trees, “black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze.”
But America also has a competing tradition of caring for and protecting the targets of hatred. There exists a huge reservoir of good will and a tremendous capacity for action. By 1977, many of those who had survived the fury of Hitler’s followers thirty and forty years before had grown frail, but the memory of those times still had to sear. Survivors did not deserve more confrontation with another generation’s cheerleaders for evil.
Those opposing the Nazis got an injunction against the Nazi march.
Leave the survivors alone.
Leave Jewish citizens alone.
Keep your Nazi symbols away from everyone willing to take a stand.
The Nazis fought the injunction all the way to the Supreme Court. They were joined by the ACLU. The argument was about free speech and the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
In the end, the parts about free speech and the right to assemble meant the Nazis could march. The injunction was struck down. Swastikas could be paraded in front of those who had almost perished during the last nightmare in Europe.
When the injunction was lifted, another similar injunction, this one in Chicago, was also struck down. Chicago was a bigger stage, so the Nazis held their little parade through those streets instead. They never did march in Skokie.
The debate over Skokie and the Nazis was national and fierce. The right of a persecuted people to be left alone was, in the end, legally overruled by the right to speak, a right guaranteed even in the case of speech that any decent person would find abhorrent.
I thought about the march that never was, that court decision, and the sometimes painful freedom guaranteed by the United States Constitution as the war of words escalated between a national candidate for President of the United States on one side and, on the other, the parents of an Army captain killed defending those freedoms.
As Khizr Khan held up his own pocket copy of the Constitution, he challenged Mr. Trump.
Let me ask you: have you even read the United States Constitution? I will gladly lend you my copy. In this document, look for the words ‘liberty’ and ‘equal protection of law’.
It was a scathing indictment, provocative because it personalized what had been a debate involving what seemed like distant principles, legalities. It suddenly became a father’s dignified anger and a mother’s wordless grief. A dry debate became vivid sacrifice, a matter of life and death and pain.
The question about our familiarity with the Constitution touched many of us. Inquiries about pocket copies of the founding document are said to have jumped.
It came to me that I too carry with me many things I find sustaining. I have pocket photos of my loved one, our children, and another child we did not have the resources to adopt years ago. He has grown, we are told, in a healthy and happy environment with new parents who love him. I also carry a prayer from Father Thomas Merton. The paper is fresh and crisp. It is the latest replacement, as previous copies have become worn with repeated unfolding.
I do not carry the United States Constitution in my pocket. Mr. Khan must love our freedoms very much.
When Mr. Trump spoke to Republican members of Congress in July, several later expressed shock at his lack of familiarity with the Constitution. At one point, he promised to defend every article, Article One, Article Twelve, all of them. Few of us are aware that the Constitution has only seven articles. I had to look it up.
I am disappointed with those Republicans, the ones who were alarmed that Mr. Trump did not know even the number of Articles. I am disappointed that they had not already been alarmed at Mr. Trump’s lack of respect for basic freedoms contained at the end of the document, in the Amendments.
A program that would curtail the freedom of a religious minority because of the way they worship alarms me more than whether a candidate for President knows that there are seven articles. Retribution against all those people because of terrible acts of violence by a renegade offshoot seems to me a basic departure from what we hold valuable. Collective punishment is not what we do.
Mr. Khan made it personal only partially because of his words. It became especially personal because he and his wife are, in fact, persons. It is acutely personal because of their tightly restrained pain.
It became more personal because of the coarse response by Mr. Trump, his campaign, and some of his supporters. It is as if no loss of life, no sacrifice by others, no grief, no honored grave site can eclipse their rage at being crossed.
A lone, brave woman, reveals at a rally in Carson City, Nevada, that her husband is serving in the Persian Gulf. The crowd cheers for her. She questions Mike Pence, Donald Trump’s Vice Presidential candidate.
Time and time again Trump has disrespected our nation’s armed forces and veterans — and his disrespect for Mr. Khan and his family …
At the words “Mr. Khan and his family” boos and jeers from the crowd nearly drown out the rest. She bravely continues despite the volume of angry derision.
…is just an example of that. Will there ever be a point in time when you’re able to look Trump in the eye and tell him ‘Enough is enough?’ You have a son in the military. How do you tolerate his disrespect?
The question is not surprising. The boisterous anger of the crowd is stunning.
The campaign itself joins in, as close Trump allies distribute a theory. Khizr Khan and Ghazala Khan must be part of terrorist conspiracies. Even the heroic Captain Humayun Khan, killed defending his troops in Iraq, must have been an agent secretly working for terrorists.
Mr. Trump himself goes on the attack, questioning the grief-stricken silence of the Gold Star mother. He is not satisfied with Ghazala Khan’s explanation that she could not speak because of the pain of seeing a large portrait of her slain son. He demands a more satisfactory answer.
If you look at his wife, she was standing there. She had nothing to say. She probably — maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say. You tell me.
He responds to their loss by explaining that he is no stranger to sacrifice. After all, he has worked hard to build large, tall structures. He has hired many people. That, he explains, is what real sacrifice is about.
I think I’ve made a lot of sacrifices. I’ve worked very, very hard. I’ve created thousands and thousands of jobs. Tens of thousands of jobs.
In a written statement, he defends his right to attack the couple.
While I feel deeply for the loss of his son, Mr. Khan, who has never met me, has no right to stand in front of millions of people and claim I have never read the Constitution, (which is false) and say many other inaccurate things.
The right of this couple, their right to stand in front of millions of people and question whether Mr. Trump has ever read the United States Constitution, that very right is precisely spelled out in that same Constitution Mr. Trump indignantly claims to have read.
The freedom of speech that would have allowed a Nazi march in Skokie certainly has to extend to a couple who lost a son in combat. It was in defense of that and other freedoms that Captain Khan served.
Mr. Trump’s ignorance of that right is more meaningful proof that he needs to read Mr. Khan’s copy than whether he thinks the Constitution has twelve articles, rather than the seven it contains.
The right of speech extends to Mr. Trump as well. He does have the right to attack this couple for daring to speak out. And the rest of us have the right to express our opinion of his attempt to bully this father and grieving mother for having offended him.
I confess to not having known before now how many articles are in that founding document, but I do know the basic freedoms it guarantees. Mr. Trump should be familiar with one of those rights. He lives it every day.
That right, in the Constitution with those other freedoms, is the inalienable right to be a god-awful jerk.
Mr. Trump can find that right guaranteed in Article Twelve.
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