They spoke just twice.
The first time was 10 years ago when Mark Stroman, armed with a sawed-off shotgun, pushed through the door of a Dallas gas station and furiously asked the dark-skinned clerk, Rais Bhuiyan, "Where are you from?"
The second was a brief phone call this summer before Stroman was about to be executed. "I forgive you and I do not hate you," Bhuiyan told the man who had shot him in the face, blinding him in his right eye.
"Thank you from my heart," Stroman said. "I love you."
After all the commemorations on the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11, there is a story left to tell. The events involving Stroman and Bhuiyan happened far from the scene of the attacks, but stemmed directly from them. Their story is a counterpoint to much of the narrative of the last decade, but is nevertheless central to it. It is a story about terror and revenge. But it is also about forgiveness.
Bhuiyan is from Bangladesh, one of eight children in a deeply religious Muslim family. He served in the Bangladeshi air force. As his family spread — a brother in Dubai, a sister in Toronto — he took a chance on America. Leaving his wife behind, he moved to New York and studied computers, then, at 27, went to Texas to help a friend with a gas station.
He arrived in Dallas on May 11, 2001. He had won a U.S. visa lottery that put him on the path to citizenship, and was preparing for his wife to join him.
After Sept. 11, some customers at the gas station grew belligerent. He could tell by how they looked at him, what they said. Another Muslim had been killed in a shooting nearby.
On Sept. 21, Stroman walked in, wearing black sunglasses, a baseball cap and a red bandanna. Bhuiyan saw the shotgun and quickly opened the register. He placed about $200 on the counter.
Bhuiyan stepped back. "Please don't shoot me," he said.
Stroman asked his question, "Where are you from?"
The gun came up. It pointed directly at Bhuiyan's face.
In the ambulance rushing to the hospital, Bhuiyan recited from the Koran. He cried out for his mother. He remembered what she told him years ago. Follow the Islamic faith, she said, and forgive those who hurt you.
Stroman's mother drank too much. She told him when he was growing up in Dallas that she had been $50 short of an abortion. She would rather have had a dog. His stepfather drank too, and beat the boy. He taught him that they were racially superior.
By 12 Stroman was into marijuana, and would soon pick up meth and cocaine. In and out of jail for burglary, robbery and credit card abuse, he joined a prison gang of white racists. He worked sporadically at an auto body shop and laying granite and marble tile. He fathered four children.
When he walked into the gas station, Stroman was on probation for illegally possessing a firearm. It was the second of his three attacks at gas stations and convenience stories. At one, Stroman killed Waqar Hasan, a 46-year-old Pakistani immigrant. At another, he murdered Vasudev Patel, a 49-year-old Buddhist from India.
Tom Boston, owner of a body shop where Stroman worked, identified him in a grainy video from the third shooting.
A friend, Melquaides Gonzales, saw him in a Dallas holding cell. Stroman told him he had been awake and on drugs for most of the three weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks. "He was upset about what had happened when the World Trade Center was bombed," Gonzales said. "He mumbled that he figured he had to do what his country would not."
Stroman claimed a sister had died in the trade center, a lie. None of his victims were the Arabs that Stroman said he was hunting in retaliation. In the courtroom for the Patel slaying, he smirked at Bhuiyan and others. More than once he flipped them his middle finger.
After being sentenced to death, he was unrepentant. He said in an interview that he had planned a fourth attack at a Dallas mosque. "I was going to go in shooting Arabs," he laughed. He was going to tell them what he told his other victims, "God bless America."
Bhuiyan underwent numerous surgeries. His wife in Bangladesh, fearful over the shooting, never joined him in Texas. He got headaches teaching his brain to use his good eye. At night he awoke afraid, still imagining Stroman's dark sunglasses and red bandanna.
Bhuiyan also heard his mother's voice: "He is the best who can forgive."
In 2009, Bhuiyan traveled to Mecca. For days he prayed, trying to let go of his anger. When he returned to the U.S., he viewed Stroman no differently than the Sept. 11 hijackers. "I saw Mark that same way. He had a closed soul just like them." All of them were "ignorant," he said.
Stroman wrote letters from prison to family and friends. "This was not a crime of hate but an act of Passion and Patriotism, an act of country and commitment, an act of retribution and recompense," he said. He called himself the "first American to Retaliate and take a stand."
"I may be a Bad American, but that's tough!" He was "Texas Loud and Texas Proud," he said. He ended his letters, "God bless America."
By this year, however, Stroman's rhetoric was softening. "Waiting patiently, looking deep within myself," he titled a letter in June. He wrote about turning to the Christian religion, and how "this ride of death has truly changed me and I believe it's part of the Master's plan."
He learned through outside contacts that Bhuiyan and the families of the two men he killed were having second thoughts about his execution.
With less than a month to live, Stroman felt that "this is bigger than me or Rais. But it starts with Rais' forgiveness."
He wrote to Bhuiyan. "Dear Rais. My death is slotted in Huntsville July 20th 2011 … and that means I need to get some things straight with the world.... With many emotions flowing like clouds in the sky … it's better late than never. So let's go. I was completely and utterly wrong and I hope you can forgive me."
By then, Bhuiyan said, he realized that "I forgave Mark Stroman many years ago." He simply did not know how to express his forgiveness, how to direct it, how to tell Stroman.
Then he learned that Gov. Rick Perry had signed a proclamation supporting victims' rights. Among those rights is a mediation session for victims to meet assailants. Bhuiyan asked for his session. He said he received no response. He asked the governor for a 30-day stay of execution. He said he heard nothing.
He sued, and on the morning of July 20, Stroman's last day and Bhuiyan's last chance, his lawyers argued in federal court that the state must protect Bhuiyan's right to a mediation session. Cynthia Burton, representing Perry, said Bhuiyan should have asked years ago. She suggested he was using the system to win a reprieve. The judge turned him down.
Bhuiyan launched a last-minute flurry of appeals. He said he wanted to see that Stroman was a human being. "I need to show him that I am a human being too," he said.
The appeals failed.
Earlier in the day, though, Bhuiyan managed to speak briefly with Stroman by cellphone. The line was patchy, and for some time Stroman had been struggling with how to say he was sorry.
"Hey, man, thank you for everything you have been trying to do for me," he told Bhuiyan. "You are inspiring. Thank you from my heart, dude."
"Mark, you should know that I am praying for God the most compassionate and gracious," Bhuiyan said. "I forgive you and I do not hate you. I never hated you.... This is from the bottom of my heart."
"You are a remarkable person," Stroman said. "Thank you from my heart! I love you, bro.... You touched my heart. I would have never expected this."
"You touched mine too."
Three hours later, 41-year-old Stroman was strapped in.
"I am at total peace," he said. "God bless America. God bless everyone."