Around the Institute

Anand Giridharadas and David Brooks Discuss What Makes a “True American”

May 1, 2014

New York Times columnist Anand Giridharadas discusses his latest book at the Aspen Institute in Washington, DC.

How do we bridge the ever-growing rift between the American haves and have-nots? What is the human capacity for forgiveness? What does it mean to be a true American? Henry Crown Fellow and New York Times columnist Anand Giridharadas confronts many of these questions in his new non-fiction book, “The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas.” In the latest installment of the Aspen Around Town Series, Giridharadas joined New York Times Op-ed columnist and author David Brooks for a lively conversation about the book. See photos and video from the conversation on the Aspen Around Town website.

“The True American” tells the story of Raisuddin Bhuiyan, a Bangladeshi Air Force officer who emigrated to America with dreams of working in technology. Days after 9/11, an avowed American terrorist named Mark Stroman, seeking revenge, walked into the Dallas minimart where Bhuiyan works and shot him, nearly killing him. The book follows these two men as they try to rebuild their lives — one on death row trying to become a better man, the other working to heal and pull himself up from the lowest rung on the ladder in an unfamiliar country.

Ten years after the shooting, during a pilgrimage to Mecca, Bhuiyan had an epiphany that in order to fully heal he must publicly forgive Stroman. He then waged a campaign to spare Stroman from the death penalty.

“[Bhuiyan] felt that the guy who shot him wasn’t a fluke,” Giridharadas said, “that that guy emerged out of, and was the extreme expression of, something wrong in America more broadly.”

In explaining the two different paths these men found themselves on, Giridharadas said,“The American dream that worked so well for Rais… so clearly had not worked for Mark, and once [Rais] understood that, his mission had to go broader than saving Mark’s life.”

Indeed, Bhuiyan’s work has continued, and he has gone on to found an organization called World Without Hate, which aims to more broadly raise this principle of forgiveness.

Much of the conversation between Brooks and Giridharadas centered on how the world in which these two men live parallels the reality for much of the United States more closely than many people realize. “We have a lot of different poverties going on here… and it is a lot more complicated than being low-income,” said the Henry Crown Fellow. Ultimately, Giridharadas pointed to three primary institutional failures that contribute to the situation Stroman and millions of others in this country find themselves in:

  • Unequal access to good parents, which Giridharadas said is “by far the most important source of inequality in America.”
  • The US school system
  • The prison system: 2.3 million Americans are currently incarcerated, according to Giridharadas, with millions of others who have passed through the criminal justice system.

“It starts to be a pretty large number of people in these communities who have passed through all three of these failing institutions,” he said.

To change this situation, Giridharadas said that we need to look no further than ourselves. “I think part of what makes America different… is that America still has this ultra-high level capacity and institutional functioning. There is a part of America that still works better than any other place in the world. Part of the solution is plugging that America into the America that isn’t working.”

The author observed that many of our best minds are either innovating ways to make life better for the most privileged percentage of our population, or for the most underprivileged in the world. Yet, the lower middle-class population in the US is largely not addressed. “We are still a very innovative country, but we have to decide who we want to innovate for,” he said.

Watch the full video of the event, below.

Caitlin Colegrove is the network and communications manager for the Aspen Institute Global Leadership Network.