GWEN IFILL: What if someone tried to kill you? If you could face him again, what would you do?
Hari Sreenivasan has our book conversation.
HARI SREENIVASAN: After September 11, a lone gunman went what he called Arab hunting in Texas. He shot three separate South Asian mini-mart workers. One of the victims, who was shot in the face, survived and later went to lead a charge to spare his attacker from the death penalty.It’s the true crime that New York Times columnist Anand Giridharadas uses to examine much more about America in his new nonfiction book “The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas.”
He joins me now.
So, let’s talk about these two very distinct characters. One comes from Bangladesh and comes one from Texas. Tell us about them.
ANAND GIRIDHARADAS, Author, “The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas”: In a way, they each typify their world.
So, one of them is an immigrant from Bangladesh, a Muslim who comes to this country not fleeing a terrible life, but a perfectly decent life that still didn’t feel enough to him. And so he is an air force officer in his society, but comes to America wanting to get in on the I.T. revolution and is working in a gas station in Dallas as a kind of way station to that goal.
The other is a product of a kind of ailing white working-class in Texas that has done progressively worse over each generation, as in his own family, and had always — Mark Stroman has always kind of wrestled with meth and wrestled with being in and out of prison, as so many of our young men are, and in the aftermath of 9/11 became possessed of this idea that he, Mark Stroman, would have to avenge these attacks and do so by going on strike against three different South Asian clerks.
HARI SREENIVASAN: So he thought he was being patriotic.
ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: He called himself the true American.
Part of the reason to write this book is to ask, what is really a true American?
HARI SREENIVASAN: So, Rais Bhuiyan, who comes from the Third World, technically, into the First World kind of gained access to this land of opportunity that we all think about. And then yet he’s face-to-face with somebody who is almost in a Third World inside America that we don’t think of very often, the class conversation that you have in this book.
ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: Absolutely.
And, you know, he — if he had had the typical immigrant story — I come from an immigrant family that originated much like his story — I think he might have, had his path been normal, never even realized that there was another America, besides his kind of upwardly own aspirational America that worked for him.
And despite being shot, it still worked for him. He was still able to rise up, get education, work at the Olive Garden, get more education, make six figures in I.T. But because he was shot and had to go to the trial of the man who shot him and then had to work at the Olive Garden, instead of I.T. for a little while and work with native-born working-class Americans who he might not have worked with otherwise, he got an exposure to another America, as you say, a Third World America right beside the First World America that he had accessed.
And he decided eventually that he wanted to do something about the hurting country that had produced a man who attacked him.
HARI SREENIVASAN: So how do we get to — and I’m going to use your description here — to the point where a half-blind immigrant using Islam to challenge Texas on not to execute the white racist who tried to kill him? How do we get to that?
ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: … kind of all in there, isn’t it?
HARI SREENIVASAN: Yes.
ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: He — two things happened.
One, you know, it was a religious epiphany. As a Muslim, a very devout Muslim, when he thought he was dying in the gas station that day, he looked to the sky and said to his God, if you save me now, I will dedicate the rest of my life to helping others.
Well, for several years, he didn’t because he was so consumed with eye surgeries and getting $60,000 into debt after getting kicked out of the hospital on day two, to any other number of — depression, any number of other problems.
But, eventually, years later, on a pilgrimage to Mecca, he kind of had this awakening that, now is the time. God wants me to repay that favor now, and I need to serve others.
But the second part of that epiphany was becoming an American over that same period. He became a citizen also that same year, 2009. And being a citizen filled him with this sense that now he had equity in the republic. And it wasn’t just something to complain about or analyze. It was something to fix if you didn’t like what was going on.
And he didn’t like the fact that there was this under-nation of hurting people beneath them for fortunate country he had accessed. And so the conversation of that religious epiphany of wanting to serve and that diagnosis of all these Americans, native-born Americans trapped in an underclass, kind of came together and made him say, I want to forgive this man. I want to fight for his life. I want to fight the Texas authorities to save him, but then I really want to use that case and the conversation to save millions of others who are not murderers, but are trapped in circumstances that leave them with no hope.
HARI SREENIVASAN: One of the interesting things in this book is kind of comparing two different poverties or two different underclasses.
It’s almost that your central figure comes to the realization that in Bangladesh, it’s pretty crappy to be poor, but at least we’re poor together. And here, when you’re poor, you’re alone.
ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: It’s the most striking part of it for me. And I have spent time reporting on poverty here and poverty in places like that.
And it is a very striking difference, that part of, I think, what we don’t understand about the specialness of poverty in America is that our poor people in this country, if you are poor, you are less likely to be married, you are less likely to have people around you, to have communities that are intact.
In most societies, it is the poor who, despite not having resources, at least have community. And in a way people, understand in the poorer parts of the world that, if you are poor, solitude is an extravagance. And too many Americans who are poor pay the unfortunate tax of also being alone.
HARI SREENIVASAN: So what happened after Mark Stroman’s execution? It seemed that this guy even reached out to Stroman’s children, and to be a resource for them, and then he went on speaking tours. Kind of update us on where he is.
ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: He, right after the execution which he failed to prevent, though he tried valiantly, he reached out to the Stroman daughters, and specifically to Amber Stroman, Mark’s eldest daughter.
And he said to her something that I will never forget. He said, you may have lost a father, but you have gained an uncle. And if ever I can do anything for you, call.
And she did call. And she needed money. And he started wiring money to her, until her family actually asked him to stop, because they suspected it was fueling a meth habit.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Anand Giridharadas.
The book is called “The True American.” Thanks so much.
ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: Thank you.