19:28
TED2015

Anand Giridharadas: A tale of two Americas. And the mini-mart where they collided

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Ten days after 9/11, a shocking attack at a Texas mini-mart shattered the lives of two men: the victim and the attacker. In this stunning talk, Anand Giridharadas, author of "The True American," tells the story of what happened next. It's a parable about the two paths an American life can take, and a powerful call for reconciliation.

- Writer
Anand Giridharadas writes about people and cultures caught amid the great forces of our time. Full bio

"Where are you from?"
said the pale, tattooed man.
00:12
"Where are you from?"
00:19
It's September 21, 2001,
00:24
10 days after the worst attack
on America since World War II.
00:28
Everyone wonders about the next plane.
00:34
People are looking for scapegoats.
00:38
The president,
the night before, pledges to
00:42
"bring our enemies to justice
or bring justice to our enemies."
00:46
And in the Dallas mini-mart,
00:52
a Dallas mini-part surrounded
by tire shops and strip joints
00:58
a Bangladeshi immigrant
works the register.
01:04
Back home, Raisuddin Bhuiyan
was a big man, an Air Force officer.
01:08
But he dreamed of a
fresh start in America.
01:15
If he had to work briefly in a mini-mart
to save up for I.T. classes
01:18
and his wedding in two months, so be it.
01:24
Then, on September 21,
that tattooed man enters the mart.
01:27
He holds a shotgun.
01:32
Raisuddin knows the drill:
01:36
puts cash on the counter.
01:38
This time, the man doesn't
touch the money.
01:42
"Where are you from?" he asks.
01:46
"Excuse me?" Raisuddin answers.
01:50
His accent betrays him.
01:56
The tattooed man, a self-styled
true American vigilante,
02:00
shoots Raisuddin in revenge for 9/11.
02:05
Raisuddin feels millions of bees
stinging his face.
02:10
In fact, dozens of scalding,
birdshot pellets puncture his head.
02:15
Behind the counter, he lays in blood.
02:22
He cups a hand over his forehead
to keep in the brains
02:25
on which he'd gambled everything.
02:30
He recites verses from the Koran,
begging his God to live.
02:34
He senses he is dying.
02:40
He didn't die.
02:45
His right eye left him.
02:47
His fiancée left him.
02:51
His landlord, the mini-mart owner,
kicked him out.
02:54
Soon he was homeless and
60,000 dollars in medical debt,
02:58
including a fee for dialing
for an ambulance.
03:04
But Raisuddin lived.
03:09
And years later, he would ask
what he could do to repay his God
03:12
and become worthy of this second chance.
03:18
He would come to believe, in fact,
03:21
that this chance called for him
to give a second chance
03:23
to a man we might think
deserved no chance at all.
03:29
Twelve years ago, I was a fresh graduate
seeking my way in the world.
03:35
Born in Ohio to Indian immigrants,
03:41
I settled on the ultimate rebellion
against my parents,
03:44
moving to the country they had worked
so damn hard to get out of.
03:47
What I thought might be a six-month stint
in Mumbai stretched to six years.
03:52
I became a writer and found myself
amid a magical story:
03:58
the awakening of hope across much
of the so-called Third World.
04:02
Six years ago, I returned to America
and realized something:
04:07
The American Dream was thriving,
04:12
but only in India.
04:15
In America, not so much.
04:18
In fact, I observed that
America was fracturing
04:22
into two distinct societies:
04:26
a republic of dreams
and a republic of fears.
04:28
And then, I stumbled onto this
incredible tale of two lives
04:32
and of these two Americas that brutally
collided in that Dallas mini-mart.
04:36
I knew at once I wanted to learn more,
04:43
and eventually that I would write
a book about them,
04:46
for their story was the story
of America's fracturing
04:48
and of how it might be put back together.
04:52
After he was shot, Raisuddin's life
grew no easier.
04:58
The day after admitting him,
the hospital discharged him.
05:02
His right eye couldn't see.
05:06
He couldn't speak.
05:08
Metal peppered his face.
05:10
But he had no insurance,
so they bounced him.
05:13
His family in Bangladesh
begged him, "Come home."
05:17
But he told them he had
a dream to see about.
05:23
He found telemarketing work,
05:27
then he became an Olive Garden waiter,
05:29
because where better to get over his fear
of white people than the Olive Garden?
05:32
(Laughter)
05:37
Now, as a devout Muslim,
he refused alcohol,
05:40
didn't touch the stuff.
05:44
Then he learned that not selling it
would slash his pay.
05:47
So he reasoned, like a budding
American pragmatist,
05:52
"Well, God wouldn't want me
to starve, would he?"
05:56
And before long, in some months,
Raisuddin was that Olive Garden's
06:00
highest grossing alcohol pusher.
06:03
He found a man who taught him
database administration.
06:07
He got part-time I.T. gigs.
06:11
Eventually, he landed a six-figure job
at a blue chip tech company in Dallas.
06:13
But as America began
to work for Raisuddin,
06:20
he avoided the classic
error of the fortunate:
06:24
assuming you're the rule,
not the exception.
06:28
In fact, he observed that many with
the fortune of being born American
06:32
were nonetheless trapped in lives that
made second chances like his impossible.
06:38
He saw it at the Olive Garden itself,
06:45
where so many of his colleagues had
childhood horror stories
06:48
of family dysfunction, chaos,
addiction, crime.
06:52
He'd heard a similar tale about
the man who shot him
06:56
back when he attended his trial.
07:01
The closer Raisuddin got to the America
he had coveted from afar,
07:04
the more he realized there was
another, equally real, America
07:09
that was stingier with second chances.
07:13
The man who shot Raisuddin grew up
in that stingier America.
07:19
From a distance, Mark Stroman
was always the spark of parties,
07:25
always making girls feel pretty.
07:30
Always working, no matter what
drugs or fights he'd had the night before.
07:34
But he'd always wrestled with demons.
07:39
He entered the world through
the three gateways
07:43
that doom so many young American men:
07:45
bad parents, bad schools, bad prisons.
07:48
His mother told him, regretfully, as a boy
07:53
that she'd been just 50 dollars
short of aborting him.
07:56
Sometimes, that little boy
would be at school,
08:02
he'd suddenly pull a knife
on his fellow classmates.
08:08
Sometimes that same little boy
would be at his grandparents',
08:12
tenderly feeding horses.
08:16
He was getting arrested before he shaved,
08:18
first juvenile, then prison.
08:21
He became a casual white supremacist
08:23
and, like so many around him,
a drug-addled and absent father.
08:26
And then, before long,
he found himself on death row,
08:32
for in his 2001 counter-jihad,
he had shot not one mini-mart clerk,
08:37
but three.
08:43
Only Raisuddin survived.
08:45
Strangely, death row was
the first institution
08:48
that left Stroman better.
08:53
His old influences quit him.
08:57
The people entering his life
were virtuous and caring:
08:59
pastors, journalists, European pen-pals.
09:03
They listened to him, prayed with him,
helped him question himself.
09:07
And sent him on a journey
of introspection and betterment.
09:14
He finally faced the hatred
that had defined his life.
09:19
He read Viktor Frankl,
the Holocaust survivor
09:24
and regretted his swastika tattoos.
09:27
He found God.
09:30
Then one day in 2011,
10 years after his crimes,
09:32
Stroman received news.
09:37
One of the men he'd shot, the survivor,
was fighting to save his life.
09:39
You see, late in 2009,
eight years after that shooting,
09:47
Raisuddin had gone on his own journey,
a pilgrimage to Mecca.
09:53
Amid its crowds,
he felt immense gratitude,
09:59
but also duty.
10:03
He recalled promising God,
as he lay dying in 2001,
10:05
that if he lived, he would serve
humanity all his days.
10:09
Then, he'd gotten busy
relaying the bricks of a life.
10:14
Now it was time to pay his debts.
10:19
And he decided, upon reflection,
that his method of payment
10:23
would be an intervention
in the cycle of vengeance
10:27
between the Muslim and Western worlds.
10:31
And how would he intervene?
10:33
By forgiving Stroman publicly
in the name of Islam
10:36
and its doctrine of mercy.
10:40
And then suing the state of Texas
and its governor Rick Perry
10:42
to prevent them from executing Stroman,
10:49
exactly like most people
shot in the face do.
10:52
(Laughter)
10:56
Yet Raisuddin's mercy was inspired
not only by faith.
10:58
A newly minted American citizen,
he had come to believe that Stroman
11:05
was the product of a hurting America that
couldn't just be lethally injected away.
11:11
That insight is what moved me
to write my book "The True American."
11:18
This immigrant begging America
to be as merciful to a native son
11:23
as it had been to an adopted one.
11:27
In the mini-mart, all those years earlier,
11:32
not just two men,
but two Americas collided.
11:35
An America that still dreams,
still strives,
11:40
still imagines that tomorrow
can build on today,
11:42
and an America that has resigned to fate,
11:47
buckled under stress and chaos,
lowered expectations,
11:50
an ducked into the oldest of refuges:
11:53
the tribal fellowship of one's
own narrow kind.
11:56
And it was Raisuddin, despite
being a newcomer,
12:00
despite being attacked,
12:02
despite being homeless and traumatized,
12:04
who belonged to that republic of dreams
12:07
and Stroman who belonged to that
other wounded country,
12:10
despite being born with the privilege
of a native white man.
12:15
I realized these men's stories formed
an urgent parable about America.
12:20
The country I am so proud to call my own
12:26
wasn't living through a
generalized decline
12:30
as seen in Spain or Greece,
where prospects were dimming for everyone.
12:34
America is simultaneously the most
and the least successful country
12:41
in the industrialized world.
12:46
Launching the world's best companies,
12:49
even as record numbers
of children go hungry.
12:51
Seeing life-expectancy drop
for large groups,
12:54
even as it polishes
the world's best hospitals.
12:59
America today is a sprightly young body,
13:02
hit by one of those strokes
that sucks the life from one side,
13:07
while leaving the other
worryingly perfect.
13:12
On July 20, 2011, right after
a sobbing Raisuddin
13:17
testified in defense of Stroman's life,
13:24
Stroman was killed by lethal injection
by the state he so loved.
13:26
Hours earlier, when Raisuddin still
thought he could still save Stroman,
13:32
the two men got to speak
for the second time ever.
13:37
Here is an excerpt from their phone call.
13:40
Raisuddin: "Mark, you should know
that I am praying for God,
13:43
the most compassionate and gracious.
13:49
I forgive you and I do not hate you.
13:52
I never hated you."
13:54
Stroman: "You are a remarkable person.
13:57
Thank you from my heart.
14:02
I love you, bro."
14:04
Even more amazingly, after the execution,
14:07
Raisuddin reached out to Stroman's
eldest daughter, Amber,
14:11
an ex-convinct and an addict.
14:15
and offered his help.
14:18
"You may have lost a father,"
he told her,
14:20
"but you've gained an uncle."
14:23
He wanted her, too, to have
a second chance.
14:26
If human history were a parade,
14:32
America's float would be
a neon shrine to second chances.
14:37
But America, generous with second chances
to the children of other lands,
14:44
today grows miserly with first chances
to the children of its own.
14:50
America still dazzles at allowing
anybody to become an American.
14:56
But it is losing its luster at allowing
every American to become a somebody.
15:01
Over the last decade, seven million
foreigners gained American citizenship.
15:07
Remarkable.
15:12
In the meanwhile, how many Americans
gained a place in the middle class?
15:14
Actually, the net influx was negative.
15:19
Go back further,
and it's even more striking:
15:23
Since the 60s, the middle class
has shrunk by 20 percent,
15:25
mainly because of the people
tumbling out of it.
15:31
And my reporting around the country
tells me the problem is grimmer
15:34
than simple inequality.
15:38
What I observe is a pair of secessions
from the unifying center of American life.
15:40
An affluent secession of up, up and away,
15:46
into elite enclaves of the educated
and into a global matrix
15:50
of work, money and connections,
15:53
and an impoverished secession
of down and out
15:56
into disconnected, dead-end lives
16:00
that the fortunate scarcely see.
16:03
And don't console yourself
that you are the 99 percent.
16:07
If you live near a Whole Foods,
16:13
if no one in your family serves
in the military,
16:18
if you're paid by the year,
not the hour,
16:22
if most people you know finished college,
16:27
if no one you know uses meth,
16:30
if you married once and remain married,
16:33
if you're not one of 65 million Americans
with a criminal record --
16:35
if any or all of these things
describe you,
16:39
then accept the possibility that actually,
16:43
you may not know what's going on
16:46
and you may be part of the problem.
16:48
Other generations had to build
a fresh society after slavery,
16:54
pull through a depression,
defeat fascism,
17:00
freedom-ride in Mississippi.
17:04
The moral challenge of
my generation, I believe,
17:07
is to reacquaint these two Americas,
17:10
to choose union over secession once again.
17:13
This ins't a problem we can tax
or tax-cut away.
17:18
It won't be solved by tweeting harder,
building slicker apps,
17:22
or starting one more
artisanal coffee roasting service.
17:26
It is a moral challenge that begs
each of us in the flourishing America
17:30
to take on the wilting America as our own,
17:37
as Raisuddin tried to do.
17:41
Like him, we can make pilgrimages.
17:44
And there, in Baltimore and Oregon
and Appalachia,
17:46
find new purpose, as he did.
17:50
We can immerse ourselves
in that other country,
17:52
bear witness to its hopes and sorrows,
17:56
and, like Raisuddin, ask what we can do.
17:59
What can you do?
18:06
What can you do?
18:09
What can we do?
18:11
How might we build
a more merciful country?
18:13
We, the greatest inventors in the world,
18:18
can invent solutions to the problems
of that America, not only our own.
18:22
We, the writers and the journalists,
can cover that America's stories,
18:27
instead of shutting down
bureaus in its midst.
18:31
We can finance that America's ideas,
18:34
instead of ideas from New York
and San Francisco.
18:38
We can put our stethoscopes to its backs,
18:41
teach there, go to court there,
make there, live there, pray there.
18:44
This, I believe, is the calling
of a generation.
18:50
An America whose two halves learn again
18:55
to stride, to plow, to forge,
to dare together.
18:58
A republic of chances, rewoven, renewed,
19:06
begins with us.
19:12
Thank you.
19:15
(Applause)
19:17

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About the Speaker:

Anand Giridharadas - Writer
Anand Giridharadas writes about people and cultures caught amid the great forces of our time.

Why you should listen

Anand Giridharadas is a writer. He is a New York Times columnist, writing the biweekly "Letter from America." He is the author, most recently, of The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas, about a Muslim immigrant’s campaign to spare from Death Row the white supremacist who tried to kill him. In 2011 he published India Calling: An Intimate Portrait of a Nation's Remaking, about returning to the India his parents left.

Giridharadas's datelines include ItalyIndiaChinaDubaiNorway, Japan, HaitiBrazilColombiaNigeriaUruguay and the United States. He is an on-air contributor for NBC News and appears regularly on "Morning Joe." He has given talks on the main stage of TED and at Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, Yale, Princeton, the University of Michigan, the Aspen Institute, Summit at Sea, the Sydney Opera House, the United Nations, the Asia Society, PopTech and Google. He is a Henry Crown fellow  of the Aspen Institute. 

Giridharadas lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife, Priya Parker, and their son, Orion.

More profile about the speaker
Anand Giridharadas | Speaker | TED.com