In The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas, New York Times columnist Giridharadas recounts a saga of murder, redemption, and the meaning of American identity.
You tell the story of Raisuddin Bhuiyan, a Bangladeshi immigrant who campaigned to have Mark Stroman, the man who shot him and murdered two other immigrants in Dallas, spared the death penalty. What inspired him to do that?
Lying on the floor of his gas station, bleeding, Rais made a promise to God: “if you save me I will dedicate my life to helping others.” During a pilgrimage to Mecca he felt a sudden clarity on that promise. He’d become an American citizen and wanted to show Americans that Islam is a religion of mercy, not vengeance, by publicly forgiving Mark.
Why did Stroman target Rais?
Stroman’s attacks happened after 9/11. He became convinced that we needed “allied combatants” to make war on “enemy combatants.” He didn’t really know what Arabs looked like so he went around to gas stations; when he saw a dark-skinned person behind the counter, he shot him.
Who is the more quintessential American—Mark or Rais, the immigrant striving to reinvent himself?
Mark often called himself “the true American”—meaning white, native-born, patriotic, likes country music, doesn’t need help from anybody. In his vision, immigrants bend the country into something alien. But there’s another vision of immigrants—that they exemplify America’s founding ethos. In some ways a Mexican immigrant today is more like a Puritan in spirit than are the descendants of Puritans. The beautiful struggle of America is holding these two imperatives in productive tension: newcomers turn it into something that it’s not, but also, perhaps, help it stay more like itself.
How do experiences of family life figure in?
Rais grew up in a culture where family is the air you breathe. He came here and relished being able to think for himself, but realized that sometimes the price of liberation is isolation: he was surprised by how little people can lean on other people in America. Mark’s family embodies that. They live in fleeting, ephemeral webs of connection: someone gets someone pregnant; someone lives with someone for a time, then lives with someone else. Mark’s granddaughter is the third generation raised by grandparents because the parents are AWOL. Being a “true American” gave Mark a sense of value amid that chaos.
Does this story resonate with your family’s experience of immigration?
My parents came from India in the 1970s. The bargain they made in leaving the Old World for the New is that we gained freedom, but lost community and connectedness. My mother never regretted coming here, but she feels a person-to-person distance that doesn’t exist in India. No one ever comes over unannounced for tea in America; she longs for that random ring of the doorbell at 4:30 p.m. But none of our possibilities would have been possible without this glorious country of America. That’s why immigrants keep cutting that deal.