Editor’s Note: Shan Wu is a former federal prosecutor who also served as counsel to Attorney General Janet Reno. He practices law in Washington, DC, where his recent representations include defending Rick Gates in the Russian probe. His Twitter handle is @ShanlonWu. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
(This article was originally published on June 3, 2018.)
In the years that Senator John McCain was imprisoned and tortured in Vietnam, I was a grade-school kid being beaten up on a playground in suburban New York – and all because I was Chinese. I was called “gook,” “chink,” “Viet Cong,” “Jap,” “ching-chong Chinaman” and “slant-eye.”
One older boy, in particular, used to pin me against a fence and sing a then-popular commercial song, which featured a character named “choo-choo Charlie,” because “Charlie” was a name given to the Viet Cong.
So, in 2000, when McCain was reported to have not only used the word “gooks” to refer to his Vietnamese captors, but then doubled-down on his use of the racist term by stating that he thought it was an appropriate term for those who had tortured him, I was angry.
I was also ashamed because his use of the word brought back memories of the fear I had felt as a bullied child. After being decked by the older boys when I tried to fight back, I had quit fighting out of fear and been ashamed of my cowardice. I even lied to my father about winning a fight against the bullies.
Given my strong reaction to McCain’s use of a racist term, I was somewhat surprised at how little outrage there was over his comment. The story quickly died down, and I did nothing more than complain about it to friends and family.
But I did not forget it, and I did not forgive it – until now.
As McCain heroically battles cancer, I am again thinking about his remarks – but this time through a different prism. And in doing some new research into the furor around his remarks, I have learned two facts I hadn’t known before.
First, the story had died down quickly because there had been almost no coverage of it besides an article in the San Francisco Chronicle and one in the Huffington Post. Second, McCain reportedly had apologized and sworn off ever using the term again. His apology made me think about the importance of forgiveness and how to determine what is worth forgiving.
I find it easy now to forgive McCain’s hurtful use of that racist word when balanced against the greater weight of his good deeds and bravery. Such actions as McCain’s stand against torture, his efforts with Senator John Kerry to revive diplomatic relationships with Vietnam, his bravery as a young prisoner of war and his bravery now as he faces a terminal disease better represent the measure of his life.
Importantly, I realize that the pain and shame the word raised within me was due to my own failure to forgive my young self for being unable to fight back. In hindsight, I see that it took some work to forgive myself.
I became an amateur boxer to force myself to fight back, and my career as a prosecutor may be seen as a way of fighting for victims unable to defend themselves.
So, I think I’ve made peace with that little boy version of me now. And I’ve made peace with McCain.
But what am I not at peace with?
I’m not at peace with the fact that so little was done to hold accountable a public figure’s use of a racist term. I hesitate to forgive the media for not reporting on the story with a fraction of the energy and focus devoted to the daily reporting of the current President’s troubling statements on race – or, in the case of Roseanne Barr’s racist tweet, his failure to condemn them.
I hesitate at forgiving the failure of Asian American advocacy groups to make the media pay more attention to the story. And I hesitate to forgive myself for not doing more than complain to friends and family at the time of McCain’s remark.
McCain and I both have travelled long roads since he was imprisoned and I was bullied. He could have done better by never having used that racist term and apologizing more quickly. But we all should have done better. And we all must do better by calling out wrong when we see it and practicing forgiveness toward ourselves and each other.