The story is disturbingly familiar: a White male with anger and / or mental health issues storms into a crowded venue with a bevy of firearms intent on doing unmitigated damage. It occurred twice last year: in Aurora, Colorado and Newtown, Connecticut. In this uniquely American phenomenon – a relentless nightmare – another such drama unfolded at a Georgia elementary school on Tuesday, the 20th. Michael Brandon Hill, a 20-year-old, entered the school with a cache of weapons – and was stopped with an ‘I love you’ from an unimposing office clerk.
As school administrators and teachers frantically ushered the young students out of the building and police descended upon the area, Antoinette Tuff dialed 911 and began talking calmly to the troubled young man. Her reassuring voice has been playing out on the national media these past couple of days; leaving people amazed and thankful that she managed to diffuse a hostile situation with mere words. This is not the end people have grown accustomed to seeing. All of the other hallmarks were present: people running for their lives; scores of police officials in riot gear; and media hawks jockeying for the best camera position. Antoinette Tuff provided a surprising, yet pleasantly different conclusion. No one expected that. Even veteran hostage negotiators are expressing awe.
I have to admit I was surprised as well. But, only for a moment. As a life-long pacifist who suffers bouts of anxiety from not trying to hurt people who piss me off, I know that words can soothe the angst of almost any situation. It’s a sign of intellectual prowess and emotional maturity when people make an attempt to be quiet and interact on a verbal level. Dialogue solves more problems than a hail of bullets.
After last year’s massacre in Newtown, the ubiquitous National Rifle Association was compelled to speak publicly about the issue of guns and America’s brutal gun culture. “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun,” Wayne LaPierre, the group’s executive vice president, proclaimed, “is a good guy with a gun.”
Listening to Antoinette Tuff tell Michael Hill that she identified with his emotional distress and insist that he’s worth something, I feel almost vindicated. It’s better to talk than to fight. It’s better to discuss matters and find common ground than to inflict bodily harm and relish in the bloody aftermath. In the end, over 800 children went home and returned to school the next day. Police took Michael Hill into custody and spirited him away for psychological evaluation. Now, for the first time that I can recall, a would-be mass murderer was stopped. Hopefully, doctors can learn what happened inside Hill’s mind; what traumatized him so badly that he went to that school with so many weapons. And, we won’t have to rely upon Facebook rants or indecipherable drawings to ferret out the truth and try to make sense of the insensible.
Here’s something that’s not surprising – Antoinette Tuff doesn’t consider herself a heroic figure. She merely views herself as an unimposing school district employee who became enmeshed in a frightening situation and utilized both her spiritual faith and her unconditional love to thwart a tragedy. She didn’t need a gun and she didn’t need a bomb; she just needed some gentle words.