Grieving families shape '16 debate
© Getty

Grieving families are playing a significant role in this year’s general election campaign.

None have done so with more impact than Khizr and Ghazala Khan, who dominated the news for much of the past week after denouncing GOP nominee Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpNew Jersey incumbents steamroll progressive challengers in primaries Tucker Carlson ratchets up criticism of Duckworth, calls her a 'coward' Trump on Confederate flag: 'It's freedom of speech' MORE at the Democratic National Convention.


But both parties’ election campaigns have featured testimony from people dealing with personal loss. 

Patricia Smith, whose son Sean was one of the four Americans killed in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012, excoriated Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonSusan Collins signals she won't campaign against Biden Cuccinelli says rule forcing international students to return home will 'encourage schools to reopen' Clinton labels ICE decision on international students 'cruel' and 'unnecessary' MORE from the stage of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. The GOP summit also featured speeches from parents who had a child killed by an illegal immigrant.

The Democratic gathering in Philadelphia featured not just the Khans, but a group that has come to be known as “Mothers of the Movement” — mothers of young, black Americans who have been killed in contentious circumstances, several of them during clashes with law enforcement.

Political activism by people mourning a loved one is by its nature a sensitive subject. The bereaved have an unimpeachable moral authority, which can make it difficult for politicians to rebut their criticism.

Politicians also risk being accused of exploiting grief when they ask people to tell their stories on the campaign trail.

Observers on all sides, however, are near unanimous in believing that Trump has failed to be mindful of the sensitivities with his response to the Khan family.

Humayun Khan, a 27-year-old Army captain, died in a bombing in Iraq in 2004. His parents appeared at the podium of the Democratic convention on Thursday night, his father saying that Trump had no understanding of the U.S. Constitution and had “sacrificed nothing.” 

Trump, in response, suggested that the bereaved mother, Ghazala Khan, had not been “allowed to have anything to say,” because she is a Muslim. In the same interview, with ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos, Trump also said he had “made a lot of sacrifices” in the process of building his business empire.  

At other points, the GOP nominee released a statement saying that Khizr Khan had “no right” to say what he said during the Democratic convention. He also complained, on Twitter, that he had been “viciously attacked” by Khan and asked, “Am I not allowed to respond?”

The problem, many people assert, is not whether Trump responded, but the manner in which he did so.

People such as the Khans “have a very powerful position in political dialogue. Then when people don’t take them seriously, they are skating on very thin ice because they look insensitive,” said Grant Reeher, a professor of political science at Syracuse University.  

Tobe Berkovitz, a Boston University professor who specializes in political communications, agreed. He said that families that have been bereaved have “both moral authority but also massive public empathy. The public just feels the loss — takes on the loss — and that makes it very difficult for a politician to challenge any kind of assertion or statement made by one of those families.” 

Trump’s response to the Khans has drawn some unfavorable comparisons with former President George W. Bush. More than 10 years ago, Bush came under sustained attack from Cindy Sheehan, whose son, Army Spc. Casey Sheehan, had been killed in Iraq.  

Cindy Sheehan set up a protest camp outside Bush’s Texas ranch in the summer of 2005. Although the spectacle was, by its nature, politically embarrassing for Bush, he was careful not to inflame the situation further. 

“I sympathize with Mrs. Sheehan,” Bush said at the time. “She feels strongly about her position and she has every right in the world to say what she believes. This is America. She has the right to her position.” Having sought to de-escalate the mood, Bush added that he believed Sheehan’s desire for the U.S. to leave Iraq at that point would “be a mistake for the security of this country.”

Brad Bannon, a Democratic strategist, asserted that, “George W. Bush was a seasoned politician who knew better” than Trump. On the more general subject of dealing with criticism from those who have suffered personal loss, Bannon added, “You need a sensitive politician to deal with a sensitive situation — that’s Trump’s problem.”

But others cautioned that the situation was not quite so simple. Reeher noted that, while it is important not to disparage the bereaved, there is a peculiarity about a scenario in which someone is “put forward as a policy expert” on any given topic because they have undergone some viscerally traumatic event.

“If the person doesn’t really have any experience in the area, one might wonder why would this opinion be valued more strongly than another person’s opinion? However bad that person’s experience, it doesn’t necessarily mean they have policy expertise.”

Some conservatives, meanwhile, are adamant that the media is more willing to propagate criticism from bereaved relatives when the critique leans liberal. They note, by way of example, that Smith’s speech at the GOP convention did not gain anywhere close to the traction of the Khans’ address to Democrats. 

This was despite the fact that some of her claims — “I blame Hillary Clinton personally for the death of my son,” she said — seem just as dramatic and emotionally resonant.

Berkovitz believes the conservative criticism is valid. 

“Of course she has as compelling a tale to tell. Her son gave his life for the country, as did the Khans’ son. And yet she received none of the publicity or support,” he said.

“The conservatives and Donald Trump absolutely have a bone to pick here. … It seems that when someone is speaking on the Republican side, it just disappears into the vapor rather than becoming a major cause célèbre.”