Mark Stroman thought he was a patriot when he walked into a gas station in Mesquite, Texas, just outside Dallas, and fired a .44-calibre round into the chest of man with a brown face who appeared to be from the Middle East.
“God bless America,” he said.
It was weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and Stroman was on a rampage. During three separate attacks, he killed two men and severely maimed another by shooting him in the face. He didn’t take any money — his motive was to avenge the killings in New York, at the Pentagon and in Shanksville, Pa. He later described his victims as “perched behind the counter here in the Land of Milk and Honey . . . this foreigner [whose] own people had now sought to bring the exact same chaos and bewilderment upon our people and society.”
This weekend, the nation is pausing to remember the men, women and children who were killed senselessly a decade go — lives snuffed out too soon by hate.
Let’s also remember the names of men such as Vasudev Patel, who was behind that gas station counter the day Stroman took his life.
Stroman assumed that Patel was Muslim and therefore deserved to die for the atrocities at the Pentagon, Ground Zero and Shanksville.
Patel, a 49-year-old immigrant from India, had a family. I visited Patel’s family a year after his death and here’s what I found: his wife, Alka Patel, behind the counter of their station selling cigarettes and lottery tickets. Her teenage son was crowded under the counter at her feet, doing his homework. The sadness and sense of loss was palpable. For her, her loss was directly linked to those killed at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and on those hijacked jetliners.
“If it wasn’t for September 11, my husband would still be here,” Alka Patel told me at the time. “Why shouldn’t our families be treated the same? I feel like we all have the same story.”
Her sentiment is one that I have heard over and over again from Muslims — and those mistaken for “looking” Muslim — throughout the country over the past decade. They scream silently: It wasn’t me. I didn’t do it. Please don’t look at me that way. Please, don’t hurt my family.
Since Sept. 11, as the country sought to crack down on terrorism, people like Anya Cordell have ramped up their efforts to remind the people of the nation not to take out their frustrations on innocent Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Arabs, South Asians and others. Patel’s killing was one of more than 80 hate crimes against people who became targets after the terrorist attacks that authorities prosecuted in the year after the terrorist attacks.
Cordell, of suburban Chicago, said the negativity is not subsiding. “If anything, it’s increased and become more a part of the air we breathe,” said Cordell, who was in Washington recently to speak on the topic.
In 2010, she received the Spirit of Anne Frank Outstanding Citizen Award from the Anne Frank Center for her work. One particularly heartbreaking story that she shares is of speaking at a high school and being approached by a boy who whispered: Thank you so much for your program. I am Muslim, but nobody here knows.
“The reason that Anne Frank survived is because of the non-Jewish friends who supported her family in hiding,’’ said Cordell, who is Jewish. “We have got to build alliances with one another. So many lives have been ruined in so many ways — the teasing, the bullying, the name calling. Every single time you mention Muslims in a newspaper article, some of the comments are genocidal. Many of them flagrantly say ban all Muslims or kill all Muslims.”
After his arrest, Stroman was unrepentant, even boastful. He wrote hatefully from prison as he sat on death row. He was proud of what he had done for his country.
But as Stroman’s execution date neared in July, he was shocked into a new reality when his only surviving victim went to great lengths to have his life spared. Perhaps, he was just remorseful as he was staring eternity in the face. Or perhaps, his heart had truly changed.
“I was an uneducated idiot back then, and now I’m a more understanding human being,” Stroman said in an interview with a BBC reporter who visited him on death row. “At that time here in America everybody was saying ‘let’s get them’ — we didn’t know who to get, we were just stereotyping. I stereotyped all Muslims as terrorists and that was wrong.”
Stroman said he was grateful for those who sought to have his life spared and hoped that the nation would not create another person who believed what he once did. On July 20, almost a decade after his crime, Stroman was killed by lethal injection. “Hate is going on in this world, and it has to stop,” Stroman said. “Hate causes a lifetime of pain.”
His victims can attest to that.