Thursday, May 29, 2014

The True American

A few months ago, I wrote to you about a book I had read that I found particularly challenging: Tim Townsend’s Mission at Nuremberg, in which the author tells the story of the American army chaplains, and of one in particular, who were assigned to provide spiritual guidance to the Nazi leaders tried at Nuremberg in 1945 and 1946 both during their trials and, for those condemned to death, up until their executions. (If you are reading this electronically, click here to revisit what I wrote there.) The book itself is well-written and interesting in its own right, but what really engaged me was the challenge it constituted to my oft-trumpeted belief in the ultimate power of t’shuvah, of the ability of the human heart fully repentant and for once divested of its customary armor of arrogance, self-importance, and narcissistic overconfidence to turn back to God absolutely and really enough to make forgiveness for even for the worst sins plausible. I’ve said that aloud so many times, including from the bimah on the holiest days of the Jewish year, that it was unsettling to find myself asking not if I believe it enough, but whether I believe it at all. Here, after all, was the story of the world’s most depraved war criminals, men with the blood not of millions, but of tens of millions of innocents on their hands. If we take seriously the prayer book’s promise that even at the very last moments of our lives we retain the innate ability to return to God in repentance and reasonably to seek forgiveness for our sins through the sheer force of our desire to embrace goodness and to divest ourselves of sinfulness—and if we elect to take comfort in the dogmatic principle that some combination of repentance, prayer, and charity towards others always retains the ability to avert the severity of even the most dire decree pronounced against us in the heavenly tribunal—if we really mean any of that, then the real test is to set the idea not against the background of people who occasionally gossip about others or who eat the occasional questionably-kosher candy bar, but against the stories of these men to whom the Reverend Gerecke was sent by our own army to minister. Like chains, theology is really only as strong as its weakest link. And the way to test one’s beliefs, therefore, is to identify that specific link…and then to see how much weight it actually can bear.

And now I’ve read another book— Anand Giridharadas’ book, The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas, which was published just a few weeks ago by W.W. Norton & Co.—that challenged me to reconsider that same set of ideas by inviting me to train my gaze on them from an entirely different direction. The author was known to me slightly as the New York Times columnist who writes very interesting, engaging pieces about his adventures trying to seize the essence of modern Indian culture, but none of his previous work prepared me for reading The True American, which, although it is also an example of true-crime writing at its best, struck me as a book akin to Townsend’s precisely because of its ability to pose challenging spiritual questions without asking them formally at all. For people who claim to embrace the concept of t’shuvah as one of the foundation stones of their religious outlook, Giridharadas’ book will be both provocative and unexpectedly rewarding. I recommend it highly. But, as my readers all know, I for some reason seem to like that experience of being smacked ideationally across the face, thus concomitantly being dared to say what I actually do believe…as opposed to what I think I believe or wish I could believe.

Giridharadas’ book is the story of two men who could not possibly have less in common. One, the hero of the book, is Raisuddin Bhuiyan, once an officer in the Bangladesh Air Force but as our story begins “just” a Muslim immigrant to these shores working in a convenience store in Dallas and trying, not really successfully, to make ends meet.  The other is Mark Stroman, an uneducated Texas redneck with a swastika tattoo whose response to 9/11 is personally to take revenge on our nation’s enemies by murdering some Muslims chosen at random by himself.  Driving around to gas stations and minimarts in Dallas, he finds two Muslims—although by Muslims he appears to mean people who speak English with non-American accents and whose skin is darker than your average white Texan’s—and, indeed, he murders them in cold blood. And then, not yet done, he drives himself to Bhuiyan’s minimart and shoots him too, in this one instance not fatally. Bhuiyan’s head is permanently going to be filled with metallic pellets and he will be permanently and irreversibly blinded in one eye, but he survives the attack and Giridharadas’ book is about decade that follows in both men’s lives. I found it riveting, and I think my readers will as well.

Both men’s progress through the years that follow are highly unexpected.  Stroman is arrested, tried, convicted of the murder of one of his victims, and sentenced to death.  (He was charged with the other murder too, but not tried after being convicted of the first one.)  The book traces his path forward from that moment until his execution on July 20, 2011, and it is highly interesting to see him growing both emotionally and intellectually in prison. He comes across a copy of Viktor Frankl’s famous book, Man’s Search for Meaning, in which the author chronicles his experiences in Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, and Dachau from the vantage point of a physician.  And he becomes particularly enamored of one specific sentence in Frankl’s book: “A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the ‘why’ for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any ‘how.’”  And so, slowly, we see Stroman growing to the point at which, just before his execution, he renounces hate, accepts the reasonableness of someone guilty of what they call in Texas “capital” murder paying with his life, and embraces the brotherhood of all mankind. It sounds hokey. It sound unbelievable…and, yet, when you read the story, you are moved even despite yourself.

The real catalyst in Stroman’s conversion, however, is not Viktor Frankl’s book, but Raisuddin Bhuiyan’s own activities in the years that follow his near murder. His situation is grim in every way. He has no health insurance and so is discharged from the hospital to which he is taken after the attack after a cursory bit of attention. He acquires enormous, basically unpayable medical bills for treatments that don’t restore his vision. He has no family in the United States, and so must also combat loneliness and unwanted isolation. His fiancée back in Bangladesh, in the meantime, loses interest in pursuing their relationship and agrees to an arranged marriage her family has organized for her. He has no money, no permanent home, no reason not to think of our country as a hostile wasteland in which innocents are shot by crazy people because they “look” like terrorists.  And yet, in some ways, his transformation is even more surprising than Mark Stroman’s. He grows spiritually as he heals. He undertakes a pilgrimage to Mecca to reconnect with the wellsprings of his faith. He becomes more devout, and concomitantly more forgiving and kinder. Slowly, he comes to believe that the reason his life was spared was specifically so that he could guide his would-be assassin away from hatred and violence, and so that he could personally help Mark Stroman see him as a man and as a human being, not as a stick-figure terrorist tarred with the brush of criminality merely because of his Muslim faith. And this, improbable and unlikely as it sounds, he manages to accomplish. 

There is a wide, complicated cast of characters in the book including Bhuiyan’s parents, Stroman’s wives and children, an Israeli paratrooper-turned-film-maker, British and German anti-death-penalty activists, and the expected cohort of lawyers, judges, police officers, prison guards, psychiatrists, and journalists. Bhuiyan’s real mission, quixotic and ultimately unsuccessful, is to save Stroman from death so that his life might become a force for good in the world. His argument in court—that his own civil rights were going to be violated by Stroman’s execution since the death of his assailant without them ever having met in person would permanently and irrevocably deny him the possibility of closure, of coming to terms with the enormity of the violent crime perpetrated against him by seeing his would-be murderer renounce violence and accept him as a brother—was surely clever and is unexpectedly moving. He fails in that effort, of course—Texas is the state that has executed the most prisoners since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, and is second only to Oklahoma in terms of executed individuals per million residents—but only in the sense that Stroman eventually does die. But Bhuiyan does manage to effect a truly remarkable transformation in a man who just years earlier thought it rational and patriotic to aim a shotgun at a stranger’s head and pull the trigger.

Just before he died, Stroman attributed his transformation to Bhuiyan’s work on his belief. Calling him Rais for short, he said, “In the free world, I was free but I was locked in a prison inside myself because of the hate I carried in my heart. It is due to Rais' message of forgiveness that I am more content now than I have ever been."  And, with those words hanging in the air, he went to his death as a free man…not free in the sense of being able to escape his own verdict of death, but free of the hatred and proclivity for brutality and violence that had earlier been the platform upon which he lived his life. Was he telling the truth about his transformation? We won’t ever know, but Giridharadas seems to take him at his word and I found myself convinced both by the power of his prose and by the essential unlikelihood of the whole story.

In a world in which so much happens in the thrall of stereotype and prejudice, it was refreshing—even a bit chastening—to read about a Muslim who finds in his faith not a pretext for violence but an obligation to work against hatred, against bigotry, and against senseless brutality. What I learned from The True American—and the title itself is a bit of a riddle, since the author leaves unsaid to which of his protagonists he is actually referring—what the book reminded me to remember is that goodness and decency are functions of character, not of ethnicity or school of spiritual endeavor. Every religion can serve as a pretext for cruelty.  But from the wellsprings of faith can also come remarkable goodness as well…and that is true regardless of the specific language that faith speaks or the rituals it recommends. 

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