It’s a story that has gotten a lot of play, though perhaps still not enough: ten days after 9/11 in 2001, a large white man with a red bandana over his face walked into a convenience store in Dallas, TX. He pointed a gun at the underslept Bengali behind the counter, who reached for his cash drawer. The man didn’t ask for money. He asked, “Where are you from?” Then, without waiting for an answer, he shot the clerk in the face.
The clerk played dead until the shooter exited the store, and then went for help. A few weeks later, he identified the man, from video surveillance taken in the course of another, lethal shooting, the third of three attacks on “Arabs,” as the shooter, Mark Stroman, called his marks. (All were in fact South Asian, but then Stroman called his part-Hispanic wife “Spanish.”)
Stroman was convicted of murder. The survivor, Rais Bhuiyan, was tangential to Stroman’s swift trial, where the defense lawyer never even tried to argue that his client was not guilty of the killings. The real battle was in sentencing: the law in Texas (and possibly elsewhere) doesn’t list a hate crime against a stranger as eligible for capital punishment. Even though Stroman declared before and after that he was an “American Terrorist,” bent on revenge for the Twin Tower attack, the prosecution had to use Stroman’s thwarted request for money in the last shooting to elicit the death penalty, only accessible for a murder committed in the course of another crime—in this case, a robbery.
Stroman was on death row for close to ten years. In this time, Bhuiyan largely recovered from his grievous injuries (he will always be blind in one eye), campaigned industriously and successfully for state assistance with his massive medical bills (not easy), worked his way through and out of waiterdom at an Olive Garden (where he learned to make uncannily good wine and cocktail recommendations without ever tasting alcohol) and, by way of IT courses and networking, entered a lucrative managerial position in the virtual economy. At this point, he chose to fulfill a lifelong dream: to take his mother to Mecca.
“For Rais, this chance to serve and honor his mother was as important as the journey to the center of his faith,” says Anand Giridharadas, author of a new book on Bhuiyan and Stroman’s story. Bhuiyan said, “I wanted to give my Mom the feelings that she raised a good son, and I am at her service. I’m not here to give her company; I am here for her service, as her servant. Because this comes from this teaching that your heaven is under your mom’s feet.” This sentiment is familiar to any South Asian. It reminds the reader that in Stroman’s life, his own mother was absent—from his childhood, from this story, and from his years on death row—and so was the productive, realistic hope that bounced Bhuiyan from struggle to struggle, skill to skill, and success to success.
In Mecca, Bhuiyan recalled a promise. “As he lay dying years ago, he had looked to the sky and proposed a deal: if You save me, I will dedicate my life to doing something for others.” In the city of Ta’if, he recalled a story about Muhammad having gone there to seek converts, but meeting with insults and abuse. The angel Gabriel offered him vengeance, but the Prophet wanted to forgive his abusers instead.
This is what Bhuiyan, despite repeated denials that he was comparing himself to the Prophet, chose as his road. “Doing something for others,” he decided, would start with his assailant. He began a campaign to get Stroman off death row, citing a victim’s right to forgive and preaching the value of mercy in Islam. His ultimate goal, he said, was to uplift his fellow Americans by presenting a rescued Stroman as a spokesman for second chances.
Both main characters, whose stories alternate through the first part of the book, are developed for us by means of rich, often unexpected details. Giridharadas doesn’t omit contradictory observations or facts. The result is a thick tapestry that still permits the reader space to form her own judgments of events and persons.
So even as Bhuiyan is rising in America and preparing his legal and public relations campaign for Stroman, the inmate has been educating himself—reading Viktor Frankl; asking an Israeli filmmaker who has befriended him what the swastika tattoos on his own (Stroman’s) arms signify. Stroman (or so I believe, but I’m a bleeding heart) comes to see the world differently. He also attracts a network of supporters, people writing to him, helping him, sending him love—exactly the sort of network he lacked in the long slide from childhood through petty crime and into hate crime, the network his family still fails to provide to him. Bhuiyan becomes the brown tip of this international iceberg.
Apart from the lucid and unpresumptuous prose, I admire Giridharadas for never letting his tale’s most sensational aspects take over. The moments—and they are only moments, in long, otherwise varied lives—of Stroman’s villainy and Bhuiyan’s saintliness are subsumed in an argument the author builds about why immigrants like Bhuiyan (and like my parents and like Giridharadas’s parents, presumably) coming from poor countries might have a better shot at escaping poverty than do native-born Americans.
Bhuiyan’s observations on the practices and values of struggling American families are granted clarity and force by his own naïveté. He can’t believe how many of his co-workers at the Olive Garden hardly ever see their families, and can’t find a parent or uncle to drive them to school or co-sign a loan on a car. Of our much-maligned systems of education and justice, he says: “Back home, if the teacher comes across, we stand up. We do the same thing here, but in the court. Because the justice system is there to punish us or to give us freedom, we have to respect. But how come we can’t do the same thing for the teachers—those who make us a human being?” Of course, if Bhuiyan really thought everything was better back home, he would have stayed there or gone back. He has benefited from American opportunities to advance without resort to nepotism or pandering. As a manager, he sees the lack of a safety net here as a motivator. Unlike the Europeans, “Americans on his team worked as hard as the Bangaloreans, because in America, as in a poor country, the consequences of failure were too dire.”
Giridharadas’s intentions are underscored by the structure of the book. It doesn’t hang on the true crime drama, but goes forward into chapters devoted to Stroman’s adult children, now traveling the cycles of financial instability, teen parenthood, inadequate education, and despair that characterized Stroman’s own history before he committed his worst crimes. Self-reinvention resolutions are a dime a dozen, but there are hopeful indications that Stroman’s kids might be motivated, both by their father’s disastrous course and by Bhuiyan’s gestures of affection and support toward them, to band together and find the means to hoist themselves up a rung on the American ladder. The True American is an intellectually agile and incessantly compelling portrait of post-9/11 America—of what we are and of what we might become.