What we can learn from the dramatically undramatic events in Decatur.
People look at the young men who go on violent rampages, who shoot up schools or malls or movie theaters, and they always ask the same questions: Why would he do something like that? How can we stop such massacres in the future?
Problem is, nobody much wants to talk about the answers to those questions. Nobody wants to answer the first one because it doesn’t let us get righteously angry, and nobody wants to answer the second one because it’s nothing we can scream at Congress about.
The thing all these young men have in common is alienation. A sense of being cut off from the world, of being unable to be part of anything. And the way we stop them is human connection.
Not very dramatic or satisfying, is it? There’s no movies where the lead detective turns dramatically to the camera and says “Let’s get out there and empathize.” There’s no way to lobby for a law that people have to listen to one another as fellow human beings. We can tell people that the person they least want to reach out to is probably the one who most needs it, but experience indicates that nobody much will follow that advice.
Nonetheless, this theory got a pretty intense field test yesterday in Decatur, Georgia, when a young man named Michael Brandon Hill entered an elementary school called the Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy with the intent of shooting everyone, and instead surrendered to police without shooting anyone.
What changed his plan was a woman named Antoinette Tuff, a clerk at the school. She didn’t pull a gun of her own, she didn’t overcome him with martial arts, she just talked to him. Like a human being.
In an interview with ABC News, Tuff said:
He said that he didn’t have any reason to live, and he knew he was going to die today. I realized at that time that it was bigger than me–he was really a hurting young man, so I just started praying for him, and started talking to him and just allowing him to know some of my life story and what was going on with me, and that it was going to be okay.
She emphasizes that Hill kept saying “it was over, and he was going to die today”, which underlines one of the most difficult to comprehend things about this kind of rampage: they are often, in fact, suicide attempts. Hill, like many people with mental health problems, was evidently receiving some form of treatment, but stated to Tuff that he had not been taking his medication.
It might seem strange that one hour of talking with a stranger would reverse a course hell-bent on murder and suicide-by-cop, but ask yourself: when was the last time you spent an hour talking with a stranger? It’s more powerful than people think.
Ultimately, Tuff’s persuasion of Hill to disarm and surrender came down to a single, vital theme:
“I just explained to him that I loved him. I didn’t know his name, I didn’t know much about him, but I loved him.”
People who are told that, who understand and believe it, are not generally the ones who kill themselves and others. Tuesday afternoon, Michael Brandon Hill moved from one of those categories into the other, and Antoinette Tuff’s act of radical empathy saved an unknowable number of lives.