Tuesday, July 15, 2014

A Bit of Elmer Gantry in All of Us

In July, 2011, I began a post this way.

Mark Stroman
Rais Bhuiyan
The guy on the right is Mark Stroman, and the Great State of Texas plans to murder him on Wednesday.
This post is not about him, except incidentally.
The guy on the left is Rais Bhuiyan.
This post is pretty much about him.
On September 21, 2001, the guy on the right shot the guy on the left in the face, hoping to kill him.  Just as he'd killed Waqar Hasan on September 15 and as he would kill Vasudev Patel on October 4 of that year.  His death sentence is for the murder of Patel.  It was a hate crime.  All three shootings were.  Stroman, a white supremacist, was targeting men he believed to be of middle eastern descent in revenge for the September 11 acts of terrorism. 
Except Bhuiyan didn't die.  And in the last few months, he's undertaken a truly daunting task.
He's trying to save Stroman's life.
* * * * *
That was the second time I'd written about Rais Bhuiyan.  The first time, a couple of months earlier, I gave Bhuiyan's account of what Stroman did to him, quoting the Dallas Morning News, where it sits behind a paywall.
"Where are you from?"The question seemed strange to ask during a robbery, which certainly this was -- the man wore a bandana, sunbglasses and a baseball cap, and aimed the bun directly at my face as I stood over the gas station register."Excuse me?" I asked.As soon as I spoke, God sent some angel, and I turned by face a bit to the left; otherwise, I would have been blinded in both eyes, instead of just one. I felt the sensation of a milion bees stinging my face and then heard an explosion. Images of my mother, father and finace appeared before my eyes, and then, a graveyard. I didn't know if I was still alive.I looked down at the floor and saw blood pouring like an open faucet from the side of my head. Frantically, I placed both hands on my face, thinking I had to keep my brains from spilling out. I heard myself screaming, "Mom!" The gunman was still standing there. I thought," If I don't pretend I'm dead, he'll shoot me again."
And I also quoted Bhuiyan's explanation for his plea.
I am requesting that Stroman's death sentence be commuted to life in prison with no parole. There are 3 reasons I feel this way. The 1st is because of what I learned from my parents. They raised me with the religious principle that he is best who can forgive easily. The 2nd is beacuse of what I believe as a Muslim, that human lives are precious and that no one has the right to take another's life. In my faith, forgiveness is the best policy, and Islam doesn't allow for hate and killing. And, finally, I seek solace for the wives and children of Hasan and Patel, who are also victims in this tragedy. They have already suffered so much; it will cause only more suffering if he is executed.
* * * * *
Not surprisingly, there's more to the story.

Of course, there's the obvious more.  Texas didn't give a shit.  Victims who don't want vengeance don't count.  Bhuiyan's international efforts to save Stroman?  Nah.  His lawsuit, insisting that Stroman should remain alive while he had the chance guaranteed by Texas statutes to meet with him and pursue reconciliation?  Not a chance.  Stroman was executed July 20, 2011, just 4 days after that second post. 

But that's just the obvious more.

There's all the rest.  How did it happen that Rais Bhuiyan went from Dhaka in Banghladesh, spent a couple of years in New York, and ended up working at, and nearly dying at, a mini-mart on the outskirts of Dallas?  What happened during the ten years from when Stroman shot him that at the end turned him into an impassioned advocate for his would-be killer's life?  And what afterwards?

And then there's the other guy.  Who was Mark Stroman, anyway?  What drove him to become a one man anti-whoever exactly-it-was avenger, a self-described "American terrorist," for what happened that day in September 2001?  And how, Where did he come from?  And how in the world did he view the guy he shot in the face but was now trying desperately to save his life?

Inquiring minds, as they say, want to know.  Anand Giridharadas was one of those inquiring minds. He's a columnist for the Times, one of those biographical facts that shows up on book flaps, like the fact that he lives in Brooklyn, really of no moment.  But he's also the author of the book that has those factoids on its flap.  It's The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas, and it's terrific.

The question that haunts, really, is the one embodied in the title. Who is the "True American"?

Is it Rais?  He left a promising career in the Bangladeshi Air Force to come to the US, raise the money to bring over his fiance, and carve a new life for himself.  Instead, he was shot, lost nearly all the sight in one eye, underwent four surgeries, found himself with some $60,000 in hospital bills and no job.

Well, no job until he caught on as a waiter at the Olive Garden. That's where he had to learn to recommend the appropriate wines with the meals, to discuss their character, to push them.  First, though, he had to convince himself that although as a devout Muslim he never had and never would have even a taste of alcohol, God would be OK with him selling what he was forbidden to drink.  But once he did.
For Rais, the greatest challenge remained alcohol.  On a good night, it could account for most of server's tips.  Rais, devout to the bone, was also pragmatic and driven enough to decide that if one was going to sell alcohol to the godless, one might as well be good at it.  
That's a quintessentially American drive.  And Rais proves to be a terrific salesman - of wine, and of himself.

He loses his fiance, but he manages a lifelong dream and takes his mother on a pilgrimage to Mecca. Which is where he remembers the promise he'd made while lying in a pool of his own blood on the floor of that mini-mart.  That if he survived, he'd dedicate his life to doing good works.  And so . . . . But of course we know that part of the story.

There's some Elmer Gantry in there along with rather a lot of Horatio Alger.  And more than a smidgeon of one or another saint.  Not hard to find a lot of True American in that kid from Bangladesh.

But maybe it's Stroman.  He's alive, his mother told him more than once, only because she couldn't raise the last 50 bucks she needed for an abortion.  Raised in poverty.  Grew up in a world of country music, NASCAR, motorcycles, guns, violence, and gung-ho Americanism.  There were the swastika tattoo, the hero worship of Hitler, the open racism.  There was the criminal record.  And always the open racism.  Dallas, he thought, was the greatest place in the greatest state.  Easy for him to say since he'd never lived anywhere else.

And yet.  Stroman is befriended by Ilan Ziv, an Israeli filmmaker.  He has supporters around the world. His victim from Bangladesh wants to save his life.  And he repents.  Maybe.  Changes.  Maybe.  Or maybe it's an act.  His version of a sales job.  Like Bhuiyan talking up the virtues of this or that wine. His siblings wonder.  But then there are his kids.

They didn't get to Huntsville for his execution, but they had a few minutes on the phone.  Amber:
Dad, I'm not CNN news; I'm ot your publicity crew.  I want to know where you're at in your spiritual life.  Because I worry about that, and I stress on that.  I mean, after you're gone, where are you going?
On the outside, before this, he'd "said little about God to her."  Now, she thought, he sounded "like a true believer."

To Erika he offered a bit of advice.
I'll always be the same fucking knucklehead that I've always been.  But if you don't know God, let Him into your life."
Like I say, maybe.  There's some Elmer Gantry in Stroman, too, though not much Horatio Alger.  
* * * * *
The thing is, there isn't a simple answer.
Rais's contact with the more rooted underclass was an education.  What struck him at the Olive Garden, making these new friends, was that the Americans he worked with didn't share his ability to reimagine and remake himself.  They seemed not to know how to take advantage of their own, fortunate country. And they were often left to themselves, without anyone to cushion their falls or witness their triumphs.
In Rais Bhuiyan, there's one American.  In Mark Stroman, there's another.  Neither quite so simple as he seems at first.  Which is, after all, the point.

Murder and Mercy.  



Thanks to the good folks at W.W. Norton for sending me a copy of the book to review.

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