Rekha Basu: We could all learn a lesson in forgiveness from Nohema Graber’s grieving children


By Rekha Basu, Des Moines Register

We all need to operate by a single standard of truth and justice and not impose our preconceptions or biases on the tragic killing of Nohema Graber.

The painful paradoxes around Nohema Graber’s unfathomable death keep coming to light.


In a haunting twist of fate, the 66-year-old Mexico-born high school Spanish teacher of Fairfield was killed during Mexico’s Day of the Dead holiday, on Nov. 2. That was within days of explaining the holiday to a local newspaper, with the ritual offerings of food and drink and trinkets to departed loved ones. Those are set out in the belief that the dead return to visit that day.

Graber was slain that very day, leaving a community of friends, family co-workers and students bewildered and grieving, and her three children motherless. She had told the newspaper, “We know we’re all going to die. It’s our way of laughing at death.”

Two 16-year-old students, Willard Noble Chaiden Miller and Jeremy Everett Goodale, have been charged with conspiring to murder her, doing so and then hiding her body in a city park where she loved to walk. Graber’s remains were discovered Nov. 4, crudely hidden under a tarp, wheelbarrow and railroad ties. Investigations said her death was caused by “inflicted trauma to the head.”


Police say they uncovered a motive in social media exchanges. But the only one floated in media interviews so far is that the defendants disliked the teacher.

The accused had been friends since early ages at the private Maharishi School, from where they transferred to the public school system. Their previous school is affiliated with the Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, and incorporates transcendental meditation twice daily into its routines. Its literature highlights bringing out students’ self-knowledge, unleashing creativity, success and happiness. It also speaks of building connections, cooperation and global awareness, stressing, “We believe the world is our family.”

That kind of educational orientation would seem to be the antithesis of a culture that breeds violent outbursts. But that’s a view from the outside. A spokesman/attorney for the university and school declined to say anything about the school or the boys, saying that he wouldn’t “try the case in the press.”


But Graber’s adult children, who adored her, have already forgiven her killers. Her son, Christian Graber, posted a Facebook message saying he did so because there was no point in being angry. “My mother was an angel of a woman and was one of the kindest souls,” he wrote. Her daughter, Nohema Marie Graber, echoed the sentiment, writing on Facebook, “To the two teenagers that so cruelly took her life, it is clear that they need more love and light in their hearts. But I agree with my oldest brother Christian, all we can do is forgive.”

How to make sense of this? One thing we can’t afford to do is base quick conclusions on demographics. An ethnically oriented motivation for Graber’s killing would be an obvious angle to investigate given that Graber was Latina, and the defendants are non-Hispanic white teenagers, and hate crimes rose to a 12-year high last year. But investigators have ruled out that out as a motive, so we will take their word for now.

Still, one can’t help compare reaction to this case with the response of some to the 2018 murder of University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts, who disappeared in the summer of 2018 after going out for a run in her hometown of Brooklyn. That one was hyped for political purposes by Gov. Kim Reynolds, U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, and even President Donald Trump. All rushed to blame illegal immigration immediately after 26-year-old Mexican-born Cristhian Bahena Rivera’s arrest.


Reynolds issued a statement saying, “As Iowans … we are angry that a broken immigration system allowed a predator like this to live in our community, and we will do all we can bring justice to Mollie’s killer.” Grassley jumped on board, and Trump’s White House tweeted out a video showing families of people purportedly killed by undocumented immigrants. That kicked up anti-immigrant rhetoric. At least two Latino heritage festivals in Iowa were cancelled as the rhetoric grew more hateful and social media posts encouraged people to “hunt illegals in Iowa.”

Bahena was eventually convicted, but his immigration status had nothing to do with why he killed Tibbetts. It was just a facile way to exploit the immigration issue.

The point here is that we all need to operate by a single standard of truth and justice and not impose our preconceptions or biases on a tragedy. Reynolds has called Graber’s murder tragic and ordered flags flown at half staff in her honor. That’s good.

And finally, for as heinous a crime as Nohema Graber’s killing was, when dependent children commit violent crimes, they’re often not solely to blame. While the law must do its job now, the heart sometimes has a different role to play.

The gracious expressions of forgiveness from Graber’s family set a high standard to follow. But let’s resist any urge to blame transcendental meditation, parenting or other easy explanations. The current trial for the men accused of stalking and killing Ahmaud Arbery (and explaining that they thought he might have stolen something) shows how rushes to judgment can be fatal.

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