“Days after 9/11, an avowed ‘American terrorist’ named Mark Stroman, seeking revenge, walks into a Dallas mini-mart and shoots Raisuddin Bhuiyan, a Bangladeshi immigrant, maiming and nearly killing him. Ten years after the shooting, Bhuiyan wages a campaign against the State of Texas to have his attacker spared from the death penalty. The True American is a rich, colorful, profoundly moving exploration of the American dream in its many dimensions.” (Synopsis appearing on the back of The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas). Article feature photo courtesy of Earl Wilson/The New York Times.
Literature as Community Tool
On September 12, Anand Giridharadas visited Lehigh University’s Zoellner Arts Center as a speaker for The Notations Series. Discussing his 2014 book, The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas, Giridharadas opened his talk by praising Lehigh’s use of the book as a means of building community among its incoming freshman class. He explained that this story, though it is one of thousands of immigrant tales, appealed to him because it conveys “a story big enough and complicated enough for our big and complicated country.”
The American Dream?
For Giridharadas, the story of Raisuddin Bhuiyan’s life portrays the immense hope and sacrifice with which so many immigrants approach life in America. However, he notes that, at the time Bhuiyan moved to the United States, “the American Dream was thriving, but only in India.” The dream only resides in the minds of those not yet living it: not yet living the excessive hours spent working, not yet living the struggle to further one’s education, and not yet living the sheer racism encountered by so many immigrants. Bhuiyan faced these very hurdles with an insatiable desire to succeed in his new home. Unfortunately, his role as a small-business owner eventually led him to stare down the barrel of a hate-fueled gun.
Unspeakable Rage, Unparalleled Compassion
Giridharadas explained that Stroman’s white supremacist rage blossomed in the days following the 9/11 attacks. He targeted individuals of Muslim faith, wrongly assuming that they all held in their hearts the same aggression as the 9/11 perpetrators. Ironically for Stroman, Muslim faith compels its followers to love and to forgive others. Islam gave Bhuiyan the language of mercy with which he approached Stroman’s horrendous act of violence.
The remarkable part of Raisuddin Bhuiyan’s story does not lie in his survival of a near-fatal shooting; rather, it lies in the immense compassion he later exhibits. Stroman was sentenced to death in Texas for his despicable crime. In the aftermath of an act likely to instill hatred in most, Bhuiyan instead chose forgiveness. He worked endlessly to help his assailant avoid capital punishment. He even spoke to Stroman, who was–rightfully–moved by his victim’s kindness. In spite of Bhuiyan’s efforts, Mark Stroman was executed in 2011.
A Parting Lesson
Concluding his talk, Giridharadas tasked his audience with the following goal: “Don’t solve things that aren’t actually problems.” He explained that we, as a nation, must do a better job of identifying social issues and working towards betterment. We would be all the stronger if we recognized the consequences of collective loss and struggle. “When many people in your society feel something–real or imagined–it must be [dealt with] as political fact,” Giridharadas said. He underscored the importance of solidarity. He invited the audience to begin conversations aimed at pinpointing social problems that may masquerade as individual concerns. Anand Giridharadas’ lecture instilled in audience members a sense of obligation–at worst, to converse with others, and, at best, to seek a legacy of compassion much like that of Rais Bhuiyan.