The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas. By Anand Giridharadas. W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 2014. 336 pp.
Anand Giridharadas doesn’t tell you the story you expect him to. Tracing the trajectory of two men who collided violently in the days after the September 11 attacks, The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas at first appears to tell a story of violence, hate, and forgiveness, and though it does that, it also weaves a deeper tale of American life in the twenty-first century and the state of the American dream.
Raisuddin “Rais” Bhuiyan is a Bangladeshi immigrant who had abandoned a career in the Bangladeshi Air Force to come to America to seek his fortune. After attempting to find work in New York, he accepted a friend’s offer of a job at a gas station convenience store in Dallas. On September 21, 2001, he was working the morning shift when Mark Stroman, a white supremacist with a history of drug use and theft convictions, entered the store and demanded to know where Rais was from. Before Rais could answer, Stroman shot him in the face with a shotgun. Rais barely survived.
Stroman’s other victims weren’t so lucky. Outraged by the 9/11 attacks, Stroman had anointed himself America’s avenger and gone looking for Arabs to attack. He found none. Instead, he found a Bangladeshi (Rais), a Pakistani, Waqar Hasan, murdered on September 15, and an Indian, Vasudev Patel, murdered on October 4, whose brown skin made them, in his eyes, suitable victims.
For his part, Rais saw the 9/11 attackers as non-Muslim “heathens,” a disgrace to the Islamic faith who were “disqualified by their deed.”
Arrested after the murder of Vasudev Patel, Stroman was charged with capital murder, which carried a sentence of death by lethal injection in Texas. Had he been charged with a hate crime, Stroman would’ve gotten a lesser sentence of life. But, because it was capital murder, committed as part of another crime—robbery—the sentence was more severe. After shooting Patel, Stroman had tried to take cash from Patel’s cash register. Had the motive been hatred (or “counter-jihad” as Stroman himself characterized it) instead of robbery, the death penalty would not have been an option. Because robbery had not been a demonstrable motive in the shootings of Bhuiyan and Hasan, prosecutors decided to leave their shootings aside and focus on the murder of Patel. This led to a situation in which Stroman’s defense attorney actually argued that he was not a robber, but merely a racist terrorist, in order to spare his life.
Stroman and Rais both wanted their America—the America of their dreams. Stroman however wanted it “as it was,” or as he thought it once was, and should stay—not one perennially remade with new waves of immigrants bringing new ways, new foods, new faiths. Rais dreamt of the America he had heard about back in Bangladesh, where anyone could remake himself with hard work and dedication. The difference is that Rais could, and did, constantly leave and move on to (hopefully) better opportunities—first from Bangladesh to New York, then to Dallas. Stroman, on the other hand, was anchored in his particular milieu.
Rais’ faith in this America was already shaken by his inability to find sufficient work there, and battered even more by his treatment after the attack. Not having health insurance, he was dumped out of the hospital, shortly after his attack, as an outpatient. Efforts to save his sight put him deeply into debt, and he became imprisoned by his inability to pay his bills. “What Rais was perhaps discovering,” writes Giridharadas in a key passage, “was that the liberty and selfhood that America gave, that had called to him from across the oceans, could, if carried to their extremes, fail people as much as the strictures of a society like Bangladesh.”
This was the case with Stroman. A product of a broken home, with few family ties and no support network, for Stroman “freedom” was its own prison. Giridharadas makes the point that no one who knew Stroman—not his friends, not his ex-wife or kids, certainly not the jurors who sentenced him to death—had a full picture of this man, and had “only peeks” into various aspects of his life. This is something the author, a New York Times reporter, sets out to correct, by first telling the story of Stroman’s background and then the story of how he sought redemption while on Death Row, seeking to make some sense of his life.
Stroman came to see himself as part of the tragedy of 9/11, not a hero of it, not a victim, either. A key relationship in the book is that between Stroman and Israeli filmmaker Ilan Ziv, who heard about Stroman’s case and came to meet him in the hope of interviewing him.
Encouraged by Ziv to take up blogging, Stroman’s writing became a way for him to form a new relationship with a global audience, many of whom began to write to Texas authorities to spare his life.
Based on his own experiences serving in the Israel Defense Forces, Ziv recognizes how “anyone can cross moral lines” into the sort of ultranationalist chauvinism that drove Stroman. Raised in Israel, Ziv emigrated after becoming disillusioned by his experiences enforcing the occupation of Palestinian lands, with Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 2006 being the last straw. Ziv serves the narrative as a useful outside observer, seeing in Stroman the mirror image of the American dream Stroman’s victims had been pursuing. Through engagement with Ziv, and his family’s history with the Holocaust, Stroman recognized the error in not seeing individuals, but only groups.
Meanwhile, Rais was also trying to make sense of what had happened to him. After a pilgrimage to Mecca, he decided to publicly forgive Stroman for the attack, and to join the campaign to have his death sentence commuted. Suing the State of Texas for denying him the chance to speak to his attacker, and therefore achieve some closure, Rais cited his belief in Islamic sharia law, and claimed that denying him a visit with Stroman in order to forgive him violated his right to practice his religion. In a twist, Stroman joins this lawsuit, and thus did a one-time “counter-jihadist” end up pleading with the state to apply sharia law in Texas.
Unsurprisingly, the appeal failed, and Stroman was executed in July 2011. In a moving epilogue, Giridharadas reports on Rais’ efforts to reach out and help Stroman’s daughter, who is herself locked in a similar cycle of addiction and poverty that trapped her father.
On the surface, this outstanding book is about a clash between cultures. On a deeper, and much richer level, though, it’s a story of how American freedom and individuality comes with both costs and benefits, and how American society continues to fail those born at a disadvantage, offering them far too few options for escaping their circumstances.
Matthew Duss is the president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace in Washington, DC. Previously, he was a policy analyst at the Center for American Progress, where his work focused on the Middle East and U.S. national security. He is the co-author of the center’s 2011 report, “Fear Inc.: The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America.” On Twitter: @mattduss.