Natalia Temesgen

‘The True American’ shows how to deal with the division among us

Natalia Naman Temesgen
Natalia Naman Temesgen Mike Haskey

Over the weeklong celebration of Independence Day, I finished a nonfiction book that I’d been chipping away at for a few weeks: “The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas” by Anand Giridharadas. It has a true-crime flair, which is up my alley, but at its core is an incredible, real-life demonstration of human compassion and forgiveness.

The book tells the stories of two men, whose lives become intertwined in a horrific way a week after 9/11. Mark Stroman, a self-proclaimed “true American,” is a Texan man dealing with the residuals of childhood traumas, the negative influence of a serious drug problem, and a belief of white supremacy. After the tragic terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Stroman goes into a blind, drug-fueled rage with a mission to murder Muslims. He shoots and kills two men in cold blood, one Indian and one Pakistani, both of whom work at local convenience stores in his area. A third victim, Rais Bhuiyan, is a recent immigrant from Bangladesh who is making ends meet as a convenience store clerk as he studies to become an IT professional. Stroman asks Rais where he is from, then shoots him in the face. Amazingly, Rais survives this attack.

Once Stroman is apprehended by authorities, he is tried for the murder and attempted robbery of his first victim. During the proceedings, Stroman shows no remorse. In fact, he is still proud of what he has done – in his mind, he has protected his country and represented the “true Americans” with his actions. Stroman is sentenced to death row in Texas for his crimes.

After Rais Bhuiyan recovers mentally, physically and financially from his terrible experience with Stroman, he goes to Mecca with his mother during the Hajj pilgrimage in hopes to recover spiritually as well. This experience is completely transformative for Rais. He realizes that God has spared his life for a greater purpose: to show radical, life-giving kindness, even to his enemies.

Rais returns home to Texas with a new, divinely inspired mission: get Mark Stroman off of death row. The rest of the book details the excruciating process of garnering support and counsel as Rais travels the world to make this release from death row possible. He argues that his rights as a victim should allow for restorative justice; that he should be able to speak with Stroman face to face and find closure through life rather than vengeful death. He even gets the support from the widows and families of the other two victims in his efforts. Meanwhile, Mark Stroman finds himself experiencing a conversion of the heart in prison. He and Rais become friends and when Stroman is eventually executed despite Rais’ efforts, Rais becomes close to Stroman’s daughters, calling himself their uncle.

I so thoroughly enjoyed this book, because it presents such a different example of how division among Americans can be dealt with. Instead of taking the extremely understandable route of protest against Stroman and other violent racists, Rais chooses to seek out Stroman’s deeper heart and make connections that can help him overcome his biases. I know that if Rais Bhuiyan could do this for Mark Stroman, we can do better than arguing with each other in Facebook comments. How about starting up a group reading of “The True American” instead?

Natalia Naman Temesgen is an independent contractor. Contact her at nntemesgen@gmail.com.

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