Colin Powell had been bugged by many things in his party’s campaign this fall: the insidious merging of rumors that Barack Obama was Muslim with intimations that he was a terrorist sympathizer; the assertion that Sarah Palin was ready to be president; the uniformed sheriff who introduced Governor Palin by sneering about Barack Hussein Obama; the scorn with which Republicans spit out the words “community organizer”; the Republicans’ argument that using taxes to “spread the wealth” was socialist when the purpose of taxes is to spread the wealth; Palin’s insidious notion that small towns in states that went for W. were “the real America.”
But what sent him over the edge and made him realize he had to speak out was when he opened his New Yorker three weeks ago and saw a picture of a mother pressing her head against the gravestone of her son, a 20-year-old soldier who had been killed in Iraq. On the headstone were engraved his name, Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan, his awards — the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star — and a crescent and a star to denote his Islamic faith.
“I stared at it for an hour,” he told me. “Who could debate that this kid lying in Arlington with Christian and Jewish and nondenominational buddies was not a fine American?”
Khan was an all-American kid. A 2005 graduate of Southern Regional High School in Manahawkin, N.J., he loved the Dallas Cowboys and playing video games with his 12-year-old stepsister, Aliya.
His obituary in The Star-Ledger of Newark said that he had sent his family back pictures of himself playing soccer with Iraqi children and hugging a smiling young Iraqi boy.
His father said Kareem had been eager to enlist since he was 14 and was outraged by the 9/11 attacks. “His Muslim faith did not make him not want to go,” Feroze Khan, told The Gannett News Service after his son died. “He looked at it that he’s American and he has a job to do.”
In a gratifying “have you no sense of decency, Sir and Madam?” moment, Colin Powell went on “Meet the Press” on Sunday and talked about Khan, and the unseemly ways John McCain and Palin have been polarizing the country to try to get elected. It was a tonic to hear someone push back so clearly on ugly innuendo.
Even the Obama campaign has shied away from Muslims. The candidate has gone to synagogues but no mosques, and the campaign was embarrassed when it turned out that two young women in headscarves had not been allowed to stand behind Obama during a speech in Detroit because aides did not want them in the TV shot.
The former secretary of state has dealt with prejudice in his life, in and out of the Army, and he is keenly aware of how many millions of Muslims around the world are being offended by the slimy tenor of the race against Obama.
He told Tom Brokaw that he was troubled by what other Republicans, not McCain, had said: “ ‘Well, you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim.’ Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim. He’s a Christian. He’s always been a Christian. But the really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer’s no. That’s not America. Is something wrong with some 7-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president?”
Powell got a note from Feroze Khan this week thanking him for telling the world that Muslim-Americans are as good as any others. But he also received more e-mails insisting that Obama is a Muslim and one calling him “unconstitutional and unbiblical” for daring to support a socialist. He got a mass e-mail from a man wanting to spread the word that Obama was reading a book about the end of America written by a fellow Muslim.
“Holy cow!” Powell thought. Upon checking Amazon.com, he saw that it was a reference to Fareed Zakaria, a Muslim who writes a Newsweek column and hosts a CNN foreign affairs show. His latest book is “The Post-American World.”
Powell is dismissive of those, like Rush Limbaugh, who say he made his endorsement based on race. And he’s offended by those who suggest that his appearance Sunday was an expiation for Iraq, speaking up strongly now about what he thinks the world needs because he failed to do so then.
Even though he watched W. in 2000 make the argument that his lack of foreign policy experience would be offset by the fact that he was surrounded by pros — Powell himself was one of the regents brought in to guide the bumptious Texas dauphin — Powell makes that same argument now for Obama.
“Experience is helpful,” he says, “but it is judgment that matters.”