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  • "Where are you from?" said the pale, tattooed man.

  • "Where are you from?"

  • It's September 21, 2001,

  • 10 days after the worst attack on America since World War II.

  • Everyone wonders about the next plane.

  • People are looking for scapegoats.

  • The president, the night before, pledges to

  • "bring our enemies to justice or bring justice to our enemies."

  • And in the Dallas mini-mart,

  • a Dallas mini-part surrounded by tire shops and strip joints

  • a Bangladeshi immigrant works the register.

  • Back home, Raisuddin Bhuiyan was a big man, an Air Force officer.

  • But he dreamed of a fresh start in America.

  • If he had to work briefly in a mini-mart to save up for I.T. classes

  • and his wedding in two months, so be it.

  • Then, on September 21, that tattooed man enters the mart.

  • He holds a shotgun.

  • Raisuddin knows the drill:

  • puts cash on the counter.

  • This time, the man doesn't touch the money.

  • "Where are you from?" he asks.

  • "Excuse me?" Raisuddin answers.

  • His accent betrays him.

  • The tattooed man, a self-styled true American vigilante,

  • shoots Raisuddin in revenge for 9/11.

  • Raisuddin feels millions of bees stinging his face.

  • In fact, dozens of scalding, birdshot pellets puncture his head.

  • Behind the counter, he lays in blood.

  • He cups a hand over his forehead to keep in the brains

  • on which he'd gambled everything.

  • He recites verses from the Koran, begging his God to live.

  • He senses he is dying.

  • He didn't die.

  • His right eye left him.

  • His fiancée left him.

  • His landlord, the mini-mart owner, kicked him out.

  • Soon he was homeless and 60,000 dollars in medical debt,

  • including a fee for dialing for an ambulance.

  • But Raisuddin lived.

  • And years later, he would ask what he could do to repay his God

  • and become worthy of this second chance.

  • He would come to believe, in fact,

  • that this chance called for him to give a second chance

  • to a man we might think deserved no chance at all.

  • Twelve years ago, I was a fresh graduate seeking my way in the world.

  • Born in Ohio to Indian immigrants,

  • I settled on the ultimate rebellion against my parents,

  • moving to the country they had worked so damn hard to get out of.

  • What I thought might be a six-month stint in Mumbai stretched to six years.

  • I became a writer and found myself amid a magical story:

  • the awakening of hope across much of the so-called Third World.

  • Six years ago, I returned to America and realized something:

  • The American Dream was thriving,

  • but only in India.

  • In America, not so much.

  • In fact, I observed that America was fracturing

  • into two distinct societies:

  • a republic of dreams and a republic of fears.

  • And then, I stumbled onto this incredible tale of two lives

  • and of these two Americas that brutally collided in that Dallas mini-mart.

  • I knew at once I wanted to learn more,

  • and eventually that I would write a book about them,

  • for their story was the story of America's fracturing

  • and of how it might be put back together.

  • After he was shot, Raisuddin's life grew no easier.

  • The day after admitting him, the hospital discharged him.

  • His right eye couldn't see.

  • He couldn't speak.

  • Metal peppered his face.

  • But he had no insurance, so they bounced him.

  • His family in Bangladesh begged him, "Come home."

  • But he told them he had a dream to see about.

  • He found telemarketing work,

  • then he became an Olive Garden waiter,

  • because where better to get over his fear of white people than the Olive Garden?

  • (Laughter)

  • Now, as a devout Muslim, he refused alcohol,

  • didn't touch the stuff.

  • Then he learned that not selling it would slash his pay.

  • So he reasoned, like a budding American pragmatist,

  • "Well, God wouldn't want me to starve, would he?"

  • And before long, in some months, Raisuddin was that Olive Garden's

  • highest grossing alcohol pusher.

  • He found a man who taught him database administration.

  • He got part-time I.T. gigs.

  • Eventually, he landed a six-figure job at a blue chip tech company in Dallas.

  • But as America began to work for Raisuddin,

  • he avoided the classic error of the fortunate:

  • assuming you're the rule, not the exception.

  • In fact, he observed that many with the fortune of being born American

  • were nonetheless trapped in lives that made second chances like his impossible.

  • He saw it at the Olive Garden itself,

  • where so many of his colleagues had childhood horror stories

  • of family dysfunction, chaos, addiction, crime.

  • He'd heard a similar tale about the man who shot him

  • back when he attended his trial.

  • The closer Raisuddin got to the America he had coveted from afar,

  • the more he realized there was another, equally real, America

  • that was stingier with second chances.

  • The man who shot Raisuddin grew up in that stingier America.

  • From a distance, Mark Stroman was always the spark of parties,

  • always making girls feel pretty.

  • Always working, no matter what drugs or fights he'd had the night before.

  • But he'd always wrestled with demons.

  • He entered the world through the three gateways

  • that doom so many young American men:

  • bad parents, bad schools, bad prisons.

  • His mother told him, regretfully, as a boy

  • that she'd been just 50 dollars short of aborting him.

  • Sometimes, that little boy would be at school,

  • he'd suddenly pull a knife on his fellow classmates.

  • Sometimes that same little boy would be at his grandparents',

  • tenderly feeding horses.

  • He was getting arrested before he shaved,

  • first juvenile, then prison.

  • He became a casual white supremacist

  • and, like so many around him, a drug-addled and absent father.

  • And then, before long, he found himself on death row,

  • for in his 2001 counter-jihad, he had shot not one mini-mart clerk,

  • but three.

  • Only Raisuddin survived.

  • Strangely, death row was the first institution

  • that left Stroman better.

  • His old influences quit him.

  • The people entering his life were virtuous and caring:

  • pastors, journalists, European pen-pals.

  • They listened to him, prayed with him, helped him question himself.

  • And sent him on a journey of introspection and betterment.

  • He finally faced the hatred that had defined his life.

  • He read Viktor Frankl, the Holocaust survivor

  • and regretted his swastika tattoos.

  • He found God.

  • Then one day in 2011, 10 years after his crimes,

  • Stroman received news.

  • One of the men he'd shot, the survivor, was fighting to save his life.

  • You see, late in 2009, eight years after that shooting,

  • Raisuddin had gone on his own journey, a pilgrimage to Mecca.

  • Amid its crowds, he felt immense gratitude,

  • but also duty.

  • He recalled promising God, as he lay dying in 2001,

  • that if he lived, he would serve humanity all his days.

  • Then, he'd gotten busy relaying the bricks of a life.

  • Now it was time to pay his debts.

  • And he decided, upon reflection, that his method of payment

  • would be an intervention in the cycle of vengeance

  • between the Muslim and Western worlds.

  • And how would he intervene?

  • By forgiving Stroman publicly in the name of Islam

  • and its doctrine of mercy.

  • And then suing the state of Texas and its governor Rick Perry

  • to prevent them from executing Stroman,

  • exactly like most people shot in the face do.

  • (Laughter)

  • Yet Raisuddin's mercy was inspired not only by faith.

  • A newly minted American citizen, he had come to believe that Stroman

  • was the product of a hurting America that couldn't just be lethally injected away.

  • That insight is what moved me to write my book "The True American."

  • This immigrant begging America to be as merciful to a native son

  • as it had been to an adopted one.

  • In the mini-mart, all those years earlier,

  • not just two men, but two Americas collided.

  • An America that still dreams, still strives,

  • still imagines that tomorrow can build on today,

  • and an America that has resigned to fate,

  • buckled under stress and chaos, lowered expectations,

  • an ducked into the oldest of refuges:

  • the tribal fellowship of one's own narrow kind.

  • And it was Raisuddin, despite being a newcomer,

  • despite being attacked,

  • despite being homeless and traumatized,

  • who belonged to that republic of dreams

  • and Stroman who belonged to that other wounded country,

  • despite being born with the privilege of a native white man.

  • I realized these men's stories formed an urgent parable about America.

  • The country I am so proud to call my own

  • wasn't living through a generalized decline

  • as seen in Spain or Greece, where prospects were dimming for everyone.

  • America is simultaneously the most and the least successful country

  • in the industrialized world.

  • Launching the world's best companies,

  • even as record numbers of children go hungry.

  • Seeing life-expectancy drop for large groups,

  • even as it polishes the world's best hospitals.

  • America today is a sprightly young body,

  • hit by one of those strokes that sucks the life from one side,

  • while leaving the other worryingly perfect.

  • On July 20, 2011, right after a sobbing Raisuddin

  • testified in defense of Stroman's life,

  • Stroman was killed by lethal injection by the state he so loved.

  • Hours earlier, when Raisuddin still thought he could still save Stroman,

  • the two men got to speak for the second time ever.

  • Here is an excerpt from their phone call.

  • Raisuddin: "Mark, you should know that I am praying for God,

  • the most compassionate and gracious.

  • I forgive you and I do not hate you.

  • I never hated you."

  • Stroman: "You are a remarkable person.

  • Thank you from my heart.

  • I love you, bro."

  • Even more amazingly, after the execution,

  • Raisuddin reached out to Stroman's eldest daughter, Amber,

  • an ex-convinct and an addict.

  • and offered his help.

  • "You may have lost a father," he told her,

  • "but you've gained an uncle."

  • He wanted her, too, to have a second chance.

  • If human history were a parade,

  • America's float would be a neon shrine to second chances.

  • But America, generous with second chances to the children of other lands,

  • today grows miserly with first chances to the children of its own.

  • America still dazzles at allowing anybody to become an American.

  • But it is losing its luster at allowing every American to become a somebody.

  • Over the last decade, seven million foreigners gained American citizenship.

  • Remarkable.

  • In the meanwhile, how many Americans gained a place in the middle class?

  • Actually, the net influx was negative.

  • Go back further, and it's even more striking:

  • Since the 60s, the middle class has shrunk by 20 percent,

  • mainly because of the people tumbling out of it.

  • And my reporting around the country tells me the problem is grimmer

  • than simple inequality.

  • What I observe is a pair of secessions from the unifying center of American life.

  • An affluent secession of up, up and away,

  • into elite enclaves of the educated and into a global matrix

  • of work, money and connections,

  • and an impoverished secession of down and out

  • into disconnected, dead-end lives

  • that the fortunate scarcely see.

  • And don't console yourself that you are the 99 percent.

  • If you live near a Whole Foods,

  • if no one in your family serves in the military,

  • if you're paid by the year, not the hour,

  • if most people you know finished college,

  • if no one you know uses meth,

  • if you married once and remain married,

  • if you're not one of 65 million Americans with a criminal record --

  • if any or all of these things describe you,

  • then accept the possibility that actually,

  • you may not know what's going on

  • and you may be part of the problem.

  • Other generations had to build a fresh society after slavery,

  • pull through a depression, defeat fascism,

  • freedom-ride in Mississippi.

  • The moral challenge of my generation, I believe,

  • is to reacquaint these two Americas,