'The True American' Reveals A Hopeful, Complicated Country

After the 9/11 attacks, hate crimes against people who were thought to be Muslim caught the country's attention. In "The True American," Anand Giridharadas follows the stories of one of those victims.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Happy Fourth of July. For many of us, this is a day for cookouts and fireworks. But it is also a chance to think about freedom - including the freedom to decide what it means to be an American. We thought this would be a good day to hear encore conversations with people who thought a lot about who they are and want to be and how they express that.

We are going to start with a story about crime and forgiveness. You might remember that in the days after the September 11 terrorist attacks, there was a spate of attacks on individuals who were perceived to be Muslim or Arab. One victim of those crimes was Rais Bhuiyan. He is a former Bangladeshi Air Force officer, who is living in Dallas, Texas. He was working at a gas station when a man named Mark Stroman walked in, asked him where he was from and then shot him in the face. Bhuiyan was one of three South Asian immigrants shot by Mark Stroman. But Bhuiyan was the only one who survived. He was badly injured and very much traumatized. But what he chose to do with that pain is remarkable. He not only decided to forgive his attacker, but he also campaigned to save him from the death penalty. That story is detailed in the book "The True American: Murder And Mercy In Texas." Earlier I spoke with the author of the book, New York Times columnist Anand Giridharadas. He began by telling me about Rais Bhuiyan's life before the attack.

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: Rais Bhuiyan grows up in Bangladesh, and he has this energy and vitality in him from a very young age that propelled him from one success to the next - getting into a hard-to-get-into military boarding school, then getting into the Air Force Academy, then getting into the Air Force, then realizing, you know what? I kind of want to move to America because things are really happening over there in IT - getting a visa on his eighth try, finally getting to America and realizing that, you know, New York's great. But he's got this friend in Dallas, calls him - says come visit Dallas.

He goes to Dallas, and he realizes, you know, the bathrooms in Dallas are as big as the bedrooms in New York. New York's kind of like Dhaka. It's a big, crowded, honking city. I'm going to try this Dallas thing - open space, low taxes. So he goes. And a few months after getting to Dallas, working in a convenience store of a gas station to try to kind of build his way towards this dream of working in IT, he gets shot in the face. And that's where Mark Stroman comes in. Mark Stroman is kind of an angry white guy - calls himself a true American patriot, in and out of prison and various things since he was a young man, and becomes convinced in the days after 9/11 that his country has been attacked in a way that must be answered, that the Bush administration will be too timid to do anything about it and that he, Mark Stroman, needs to take care of it himself and does so by going to three gas stations in the Dallas area, walking in, seeing someone look what he called kind of Arab to him, and shooting the clerk in all three cases.

MARTIN: Now, a lot of people who listen to this program will recognize you and your name from your insights on international economics, from your reporting on political and economic developments in India, where you were a correspondent. What drew you to this story?

GIRIDHARADAS: Right after college, after growing up in the United States, I moved to India, broadly telling the story of how an old and stagnant country was suddenly waking up. And I came home, back to America in 2009 after telling that story and writing a book about that. And had this slow, dawning realization that the very stories I had covered in India were happening, but in reverse, here. And there were people more and more fatalistic and hopeless about their place. And I started casting around for ways to tell that story and was just captivated from the beginning, not just by the story of a man who could have been angry, and instead forgave. But really behind that about the story of the collision of two different Americas.

MARTIN: I remember those attacks. I mean, I certainly remember 9/11. And I also remember these attacks. And I remember each of them being, you know, a story, you know - a page, a couple paragraphs, I mean, maybe more if you lived in the area where these things took place. And then the trajectory that the story takes - Mark Stroman is tried. He is convicted of these attacks. Rais has this whole other thing that happens after this. I mean, lots of things happen to him that I don't think anybody really knew about.

GIRIDHARADAS: You're right that a lot of people paid attention at that moment of these crimes all over the country - some in Arizona, some in Texas, some elsewhere. The thing that was amazing to me is - what made it a really American saga, as opposed to just a sad and bad story of hate crimes, was actually what happened to them afterward out of the limelight. And they both went on journeys over the next 10 years before this forgiveness thing happened. And Mark Stroman's journey was to get sentenced to death and to go to death row. And in the solitude of death row with all of the bad influences from his life suddenly out of his life, all of the new people who come into his life - from religious ministers to documentary filmmaker to new friends, pen pals.

All the new people are great influences. He becomes a better guy. And you see him melting. You see him becoming self-aware. You see him understanding what made him like this. Meanwhile, over the same 10 years, Rais Bhuiyan has this spectacular American reinvention, you know, gets kicked out of the hospital the day after going in, because I guess being shot in the face was a pre-existing condition before Obamacare, and is then casting around for medicine from free samples, but rebuilds as much as he can on the health front, rebuilds economically, finds some guy who finds another guy, works at the Olive Garden, as he put it, to help him overcome his fear of white people. The Olive Garden's a good place for that - and is able over the years to get six-figure work in IT in Dallas after this journey. And so both of them go on this road of 10 years and then 10 years in, kind of dramatically re-entered each other's lives.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking with New York Times columnist Anand Giridharadas about his new book "The True American: Murder And Mercy In Texas." Rais Bhuiyan came to public attention again when he decided to argue against the death penalty for Mark Stroman.

We actually have some tape of this from NPR's All Things Considered, where he talked to one of my colleagues back in 2011. And here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

RAIS BHUIYAN: According to my faith in Islam there is no hate, no killing. It doesn't allow anything like that. Yes, Mark Stroman did a horrible thing and he brought a lot of pain and disaster - sufferings in my life - but in return I never hated him. And by hating him it's not going to bring any good solution to the society. But if he's forgiven, who knows.

MARTIN: Now, at this point he'd never met Mark Stroman other than the time that he shot him in the face. And he was not connected to advocacy groups or anything like that. I mean, how do you explain this? Was this purely for his own spiritual growth? How do you explain it?

GIRIDHARADAS: I think there were two things that happened, one that has to do with his faith and the other that has to do with his status and observer of America as an immigrant. So the first thing with his faith is when he was dying or thought he was dying in the gas station laying on the floor in his own blood he, as many of us would, looked up to the sky.

As it happened, he was a religious guy, but the secular would probably do the same in that moment and said, God if you save me, I'll give you everything. I'll serve others for the rest my life, if you save me. And God did save him. And yet he couldn't serve him for the next many years because he had to worry about his eye and his health and his $60,000 of debt and all of that. But at some point that passed. And he got work again. And be paid off his debt. And he was whole. And he was ready.

And he went on the pilgrimage to Mecca and there in Mecca very clearly had this sense that God was kind of calling in that old favor and saying, look, buddy, I saved you. You said you'd spend your life serving others. This is the time - and so had a strong sense that he had to do something for others. You know, so that's one of the two tracks. The second track was all this time he'd been trying to figure out, what's going on in this society of mine.

Was this just an isolated guy who was crazy? Or is there something going on in this society that allowed there to be a Mark Stroman? And the longer he stayed in America, the more he worked at the Olive Garden and actually learned about his colleagues' lives at the Olive Garden, which appalled him - many of their lives similar to Mark Stroman's childhood, not very happy.

The more he learned about the kind of ravages of drugs in the corner of America that he was in - he realized that what had happened was not a fluke, that there was a really hurting under-nation in this country and that Mark Stroman was the worst expression of a tendency that was wider than him. And the combination of those two streams forced him to come to this realization that I'm going to forgive this guy, but I want to do something bigger than forgiving him. I want to fight a campaign to save him to show people that there's another way.

MARTIN: This is a very richly reported story. There is a tremendous detail, not just detail of things that happened, but detail around people's feelings and things that you would never think about. Like for example, with Rais Bhuiyan, the fact that he lost his fiancee because of this. Because he didn't have any opportunity to - he was ill and he couldn't go back to Bangladesh to follow through on the wedding.

And so there was a real cost that was paid on either side. And also Mark Stroman was a father and the fact that he had children. I don't want to give it all away, but I do want to ask you, what do you want the rest of us to learn from this journey that both of these men went on after being brought together in this really terrible way?

GIRIDHARADAS: You know, I think as powerful as this story is, if it was just a story about two guys, I wouldn't have spent the last three years of my life on it. To me it's a story about a man who was shot and got blind in one eye and yet was able to see something that most of the rest of us in America are in denial about, which is that there's an extraordinary number of us that have fallen so far out of the good life. And it's not just a lack of jobs, but it includes a lack of jobs. It's not just the break-down of the family, but it includes the break-down of the family.

It's not just schools that are failing or any number of other problems. It's all of these problems. And it's meth. And it's all kinds of things. And Rais, through his strange journey, was put face-to-face with this rotting part of the country, even as the other part of the country that still works and arguably works better than anywhere else in the world still served him very well.

Remember he was shot in the face and he still got his American dream. He still was able to rise up, get education, learn, get help, make six figures, buy a house.

MARTIN: Become a player. Be heard. Have a voice.

GIRIDHARADAS: Get on NPR.

MARTIN: Get some people to listen to him.

GIRIDHARADAS: And so he has lived the America that I still believe - and I think he believes and a lot of us believe - is not just OK but really works better than any society has ever worked in human history still. But he was put face-to-face as many of us from that America are not with the rotting America that has stopped working some time ago. And we choose to drive past.

MARTIN: Anand Giridharadas is author most recently of "The True American: Murder And Mercy In Texas." And he was kind enough to join us here in our studios in Washington, D.C. Anand, thanks so much for speaking with us.

GIRIDHARADAS: Thank you.

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