ON APRIL 14, 2008, Riad Elsolh Hamad, 55, left his family’s apartment in Austin, Texas, to get some prescription drugs. The immigrant from Lebanon and middle school computer teacher never returned home. Three days later, the police found his body, bound with tape, floating in nearby Lady Bird Lake, and concluded that “all signs indicate this may have been a suicide.”
His family expressed that he had been under stress lately and even suicidal. And with good reason: The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Internal Revenue Service had searched his house on February 27, 2008, when the FBI declared him a “person of interest” in a criminal investigation.
Despite this cloud around the dead man, local news outlets reported nothing but kind words and high praise for him. After Hamad’s family issued a statement describing Riad as a “peace activist who worked tirelessly on behalf of those less fortunate than him and was loved and admired by many members of the local, as well as international…community.” The press duly picked up on this moniker and regularly called him a “peace activist.”
Television station KVUE quoted Joshua Howell, assistant manager at the office where Hamad had a postal box, recalling him as “always in a good mood. Never upset. Never even heard him say a harsh word about anybody.” The principal at the school where he taught sent a letter to students’ parents calling Hamad “a longtime and valued” member of the faculty whose “love and passion for education touched us all.” At Hamad’s memorial service, retired Episcopal priest Edward M. Hartwell praised “his humanitarian work to help the children of Palestine [as] some of the most creative and effective work that I know of.”
Hamad himself had boasted of his peaceable approach to politics: “All of our work is very transparent. We don’t work with any militant group or violent group, or anybody with a militant affiliation.”
That was the Riad Hamad praised by family, friends, admirers, and even himself. But Hamad had another side, the one that brought the FBI to his house, that got him fired from Austin Community College for “making racist slurs and sexist jokes in the classroom,” and that made him a foul and unwelcome presence in my life. Thanks to the recent testimony by a former ally of Hamad who has turned against him, several years later, we now know something approaching his full story.
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