“The True American”: The hate-crime victim who pleaded for his attacker’s life

The true story of a Muslim immigrant who tried to save the white supremacist who shot him in the face

On Sept. 21, 2001, Rais Bhuiyan, a Bangladeshi immigrant, was working in a gas station minimart in Dallas when a burly man with tattoo-covered arms walked up to the counter and pulled out a shotgun. Bhuiyan moved to hand over the money in the cash register, but the man seemed uninterested in that. “Where are you from?” he demanded to know, before shooting Bhuiyan in the face.

Although the shotgun’s pellets missed Bhuiyan’s brain by millimeters, 35 of them remain lodged in his body to this day; he is nearly blind in one eye. His would-be killer, who apparently thought he’d finished Bhuiyan off, had already killed Waqar Hasan, also a convenience-store worker, and would go on to kill another man, Vasudev Patel, 11 days later. When he was caught shortly afterward, Mark Stroman, who mistakenly believed that his victims were Arabs, would claim to be an “allied combatant” in the newly declared war on terror, a self-proclaimed “American terrorist,” striking back at those who, he wrote, “sought to bring the exact same chaos and bewilderment upon our people and society as they lived in themselves at home and abroad.”

Stroman turned out to be an ex-con and rumored member of the Aryan Brotherhood with a long history of trouble with the law. Despite his belief that hate-crimes legislation levied extra punishment on people like him, prosecutors had to try him for killing Vasudev Patel while committing the crime of robbery because only then was he eligible for the death penalty. Nevertheless, as the prosecutor acknowledged to Indian-American journalist Anand Giridharadas, whose moving and indelible “The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas” tells the extraordinary story of Stroman’s crime and its aftermath, it was the hatred behind Stroman’s actions that made the state’s attorneys determined to send him to death row. They succeeded.

It’s a manifestly inspirational story, the kind easily told in a newspaper article to which readers can and have attached comments marveling over the human capacity for goodness and the irony of a Muslim behaving with greater Christian charity than the jingoistic Bible thumpers all around him. Bhuiyan became a potent public speaker. When he finally got the chance to make his plea for Stroman’s life at a hearing on the day the execution was scheduled to take place, his words left listeners — including that most stoic of all legal professionals, the court reporter — in tears.