Reconciling and Remembering Balbir Singh Sodhi
September 10, 2020
As we pulled into the Mesa Star in the desert suburb outside Phoenix, the images rushed back at me: yellow police tape, body facedown, turban knocked to the ground, and the brothers who stood in front of media cameras weeping, declaring the words “love” and “justice.” This gas station was the site of Balbir Uncle’s murder.
Balbir Singh Sodhi was a Sikh American, a family friend I called uncle, killed by a man who called himself a patriot. He was the first of nineteen people killed in hate crimes in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Their murders barely made the evening news.
Each year, on September 15, the Sodhi family transformed the gas station into a sacred space. They spread white sheets over the asphalt next to the small memorial plaque, set out trays of hot food, and served cha to a small gathering of family and neighbors. Drivers continued to pull in and pump gas, looking at us, putting the pieces together. Sometimes they joined us for a minute before driving away. The floodlights came on before the stars came out. I had made a pilgrimage here many times, but this time, sorrow was heavy in the air. It had been fifteen years since the murder. The violence was endless, the memorials blurred together. Joginder Auntie sat quietly with neighbors, holding a cup of cha in her hand. She was still dressed in white, the color of mourning. She caught my gaze and smiled. Husband murdered, brother-in-law murdered, sons’ safety threatened daily, and hate crimes at an all-time high, yet here she was, still offering a smile. I introduced her to Kerri Kelly, my friend whose stepfather was killed on 9/11. I had just grieved with Kerri at Ground Zero; now she was here to grieve with us. Joginder Auntie embraced her. It was the first time anyone who lost family on 9/11 had come to mourn her husband. We took our seats together, arm in arm. As the sunset, we listened to kirtan and lined up to place our red roses and candles on the cool marble in the spot where he died. When it was my turn, I sat on the marble and whispered to Balbir Uncle, “I have a son now. His name is Kavi. He’s going to know your story.”
Rana Sodhi sat down next to me. He had spent the past fifteen years telling his brother’s story wherever he could, from schools to churches to interfaith vigils.
“Nothing has changed,” he said. He looked tired.
I felt a deep longing for relief, and a desire to change the story. I thought of my reconciliation with Roshan and how it had created a new story for both of us. I realized that in all the places I had mourned, the perpetrator was always missing. At Ground Zero in New York, the terrorists who flew the planes into the towers were dead. In Oak Creek, the white supremacist who opened fire on the Sikhs was dead. In my hometown, the young man who beat the Sikh grandfather after Christmas Day was released from custody on bail and then killed himself. They were all dead, and along with them any possibility of redemption. As Rana, Kerri, and I sat at Balbir Uncle’s memorial and the darkness gathered around us, I felt an absence I had never felt before. Who have we not yet tried to love?
Frank Roque was in an Arizona prison a few miles from the Mesa Star, serving out a life sentence. A few days before his killing spree, Roque had told a waiter at Applebee’s: “I’m going to go out and shoot some towel heads,” and “We should kill their children, too, because they’ll grow up to be like their parents.” When the police arrested him after his shooting rampage, he yelled, “I am a patriot!” and “I stand for America!” He told the court that voices told him to “kill the devils.” He was sentenced to death, a sentence that was later reduced to life in prison. We had not heard from him since. This man had always been dead to me. But Frank Roque was not dead. He was alive. He was here. I felt the strong urge to conjure him out of the prison, that place of totalizing isolation and erasure, just to hear his voice. I began to wonder who he was now and whether he felt remorse.
I turned to Rana. “Would you talk to Frank Roque if you could?” I asked him.
“I would talk to him,” he said. He did not hesitate. It was a response born of fifteen years of grieving.
That night, before we all went home, a Navajo family who lived near the gas station asked if they could make an offering. They performed a water blessing so that the vows and prayers of love we had made there that night might soak through the roots in the soil beneath our feet and connect to all the other roots in the earth and spread around the globe.
In the morning, Rana and I huddled together around my cell phone and called the prison that held Balbir Uncle’s murderer. My teammate Aseem had reached out to the prison to arrange the call. The phone rang. My heart beat in our ears.
“Hello? Is this Frank?”
“Yes, this is.” His voice was gruff.
I introduced myself and Rana and thanked him for taking our call.
“Why did you agree to speak with us?” I asked.
“I’ve always told the truth about what happened to me,” he began. “The events of 9/11 so broke me down like a man that I could not control what happened. I would never have done what happened of my own free will. What happened was a result of a mental breakdown. I’m sorry to say it cost his brother’s life but it also destroyed mine.
“After three days of solid crying for all the people that died, it turned to anger,” he went on. “How could people crash planes full of people into buildings full of people?”
“We were all watching the towers fall,” I said. “We all saw the people jumping from buildings. Balbir Sodhi also did. There are different ways to channel the pain. I know you chose violence.”
“I’m sorry for what happened to his brother,” he said, “as I’m sorry for what happened to the thousands of innocent people who died on 9/11.”
I felt the energy of rage in me. All I could hear was a man who refused to take responsibility for the murder. Inside me, the Little Critic said: “End the call! What are you doing to Rana?” But the Wise Woman in me held me to my post. I took a breath and pushed.
“The only life you can take responsibility for is the one you took,” I said. “We are talking to you about the life that you took.”
As Frank and I went back and forth, Rana kept listening. He heard what I could not hear.
“Frank, I’m hearing you. I’m so thankful for what you say,” said Rana. “This is the first time I’m hearing from you that you feel sorry.”
A few years ago, Rana had recognized Roque’s daughter and wife at Costco while he was buying flowers for the anniversary of his brother’s death. “Your dad killed my brother,” he told them. Rana invited them to join him at Balbir Uncle’s memorial that night for dinner. Frank said that he remembered his daughter telling him the story and was deeply moved that Rana showed compassion to his family. His voice grew soft.
“I want you to know from my heart, I’m sorry for what I did to your brother,” Frank said. “One day, when I go to heaven to be judged by God, I will ask to see your brother, and I will hug him, and I will ask him for forgiveness.”
“We already forgave you,” Rana said, choking back tears. Forgiveness is not forgetting: Forgiveness is freedom from hate.
“If I had the power to take you out from prison, I would do it right now,” Rana said. “If one day you come out, we can both go to the world and tell the story.”
Rana had never wanted him put to death, because it foreclosed the possibility of apology and transformation. Now here he was, reimagining our story, recruiting Frank as his brother and transitioning us all into someplace new.
“I know I can’t give you back what I wish I could, which is your brother,” Frank said, “but I hope you find some comfort in knowing that I’m very sorry for what happened to your brother and your whole family and his wife and everyone.”
We all agreed to meet again. The call ended. We exhaled and wiped away tears.
“That’s just amazing,” Rana sighed.
I felt relieved and also sober. Reconciliation is a process, as I had learned from my journey with Roshan. It requires accountability. Frank did not express full responsibility for the murder, nor did he seem to grasp the impact of his brutality. He could not talk about the murder without naming the damage it caused his life. But in hearing Frank’s story, I was understanding more deeply the unresolved rage that fuels white supremacist violence, the inner turmoil that results from hateful ideologies. Our meeting was not an end but a beginning, like opening a door.
And so Rana and I agreed to meet Frank again. We were doing it not for him but for ourselves. Our reconciliation with this man will not change the institutions and policies that perpetuate white supremacy. But it will give us information and energy for that broader transformation. Meanwhile, we are reclaiming our sovereignty, not as victims in this story, but as what we have always been, agents of revolutionary love.
Edited excerpt from SEE NO STRANGER
Copyright © 2020 by Valarie Kaur
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by One World, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.