A tale of two 'true Americans' -- murderer and survivor

Mark Stroman (AP Photo/Texas Department of Criminal Justice)

By Anand Giridharadas
Published by W.W. Norton, $27.95

Mark Stroman called himself "Texas loud, Texas proud." He also called himself "the Arab Slayer." The signal event in his life, he claimed, was Sept. 11, 2001, when he was in Mesquite, Texas. In the days after the terrorist attacks, Stroman took to cruising Dallas in a white 1972 Chevy Suburban, attempting to run Arab-looking motorists off the road.

His actions escalated from running drivers off the road to something far more nefarious: two murders and one attempted murder. In The True American, Anand Giridharadas, a writer for The New York Times, ably takes on the story of the one survivor of Stroman's killing spree, Rais Bhuiyan, and his campaign to save Stroman from Texas' death row.

On Sept. 15, 2001, Stroman went to Mom's Grocery on Elam Road on the southeastern edge of the Dallas metroplex. Waqar Hasan, 46, was grilling a hamburger at Mom's when Stroman's bullet entered his right cheek and passed through his jaw, killing him. Stroman went on to murder Vasudev Patel, 49, at a Shell station on Oct. 4 with a .44 caliber revolver, taking nothing from the store.

Between those two murders, Stroman met Rais Bhuiyan (pronounced Race Boo-yon) at the Buckner Food Mart, where Bhuiyan worked as a cashier. With armed robbery a familiar occupational hazard, Bhuiyan was only irritated when he saw Stroman enter the store with a handgun. He knew the drill -- open the cash register, give him the money, and just stay safe. He removed $150 or so and placed it on the counter, saying something like please-take-the-money-but-don't-hurt-me. To his attacker, the money was of no interest: All he said was "Where are you from?"

None of the Arab Slayer's three victims were Arabs. Hasan was from Pakistan; Patel was an Indian Hindu. Bhuiyan, who survived, had been a Bangladesh Air Force officer and service academy graduate. He won a rare visa through the U.S. diversity immigration lottery and came to New York in 1999 at age 25 with dreams of becoming an information technology professional. He found only opportunities working the graveyard shift at gas stations in Queens. A friend from Bangladesh spoke glowingly of Dallas, where bathrooms were as big as Bhuiyan's bedroom. Rents were cheap, computer classes were abundant, and the roads had 12 lanes.

Bhuiyan survived the 39 metal pellets shot from Stroman's gun cartridge. He permanently lost use of an eye and survived by pretending to lie dead behind the counter, blood spilling out of his head. He prayed lines from suras of the Quran known since childhood.

Bhuiyan then traveled the intertwined worlds of American health care and debt: scores of surgeries performed without insurance, an incident of patient dumping, and a job layoff.

Stroman traveled the world of the Texas criminal justice system. Oddly, a hate crime murder could result only in life in prison while a robbery homicide could bring what Texans call "the Death." So prosecutors tried Stroman for the Patel shooting (Stroman's demand for money was caught on security camera) and obtained a death penalty verdict.

Giridharadas takes on the story of Bhuiyan's and Stroman's entwined lives since their Food Mart encounter. Stroman moved on to Texas' death row, where he waited his turn for one of the approximately 24 annual executions in the Lone Star State. Bhuiyan, after a monthlong haj, became an activist against the death penalty.

Anti-death-penalty activists have made slow and steady progress undermining the case for capital punishment over the cost, deterrence effectiveness, and the inhumanity of the mechanisms of death. A more challenging task is to humanize the men and women who commit the atrocities that result in death sentences. Giridharadas writes with great sympathy about Stroman's "true American" upbringing, his family, and his stints in prison before 2001. He also traces Bhuiyan from the edges of elite Bangladeshi society, to gas station attendant, and ultimately to IT professional and international speaker on human rights through his World Without Hate organization. (His success also allowed him to offer financial support to the Hasan, Patel and Stroman families.)

Giridharadas' magazine-style writing is uniformly smooth, but most impressive is his deep reporting into the lives of these two men and their families. As his narrative makes clear, an American truer than Bhuiyan would be hard to find.

[Robert Little is a lawyer and writer in California.]

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