Column: Empathy Trumps Guns

Charlottesville, Va.

Is it too soon to “politicize” empathy?

Like many of you, I spent the past week humbled and awed by Antoinette Tuff, the bookkeeper at Ronald McNair Discovery Learning Center in an Atlanta suburb who most likely averted another heartbreaking school shooting by talking a gun-wielding young man with a mental illness into giving himself up to the police. It’s impossible to listen to the 911 tape of Tuff’s lengthy discussion with Michael Hill — who burst into her office dressed in black, carrying an AK-47 with 500 rounds of ammunition — without suspecting that her stunning calm, compassion, and control is something absolutely nobody else could have achieved under similar circumstances.

I am well-aware of the journalistic-slash-moral-slash-legal imperative not to “politicize” any school shooting, whether it actually occurs or is averted. It is always “too soon” to have that policy conversation about how better gun control, better mental health care, and other political measures might have averted the latest mass shooting. And then it is always too late by the time the next one has occurred. But listening to Tuff persuade a young man to put down his AK-47 and all his ammunition, lie down on the floor, and turn himself into the police, suggests that maybe it’s not too soon to politicize empathy.

I don’t mean to offer the facile suggestion that every professional faced with an armed gunman should or could attempt to do what Tuff did last week. (Although I do think it’s worth incorporating her crisis training into trainings for other school administrators.) But her behavior and its outcome does put the lie to the far more facile claim made by the National Rifle Association’s Wayne LaPierre after the Newtown, Conn., shootings — that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” If Tuff taught us anything last week, it’s that there are other things that might work as well.

But the other lesson I take from the riveting 911 tape is the extent to which Tuff doesn’t think Hill is a “bad guy” at all. She’s terrified of him. But she finds a way to listen to him.

Tuff goes from calling Hill “sir” to calling him “baby” over the course of the standoff. She offers to shield him with her own body when he agrees to give himself up. She shares with him painful details about her own life and losses, to help him understand that he can still turn his life around as she has done. She tells Hill she remembers his performance at the school years earlier (evidently her one white lie) and also that they share the same last name (her mom’s name is Hill). And at the end of the standoff, she tells the man who was ready to gun her down, “I just want you to know that I love you, though, OK? And I’m proud of you. It’s a good thing that you’ve just given up. Don’t worry about it. We all go through something in life.”

This may well be the first time in the entire history of the gun debate that listening wins out over talking. I hope the rest of us are listening too.

In her first interview after the standoff, Tuff mentions that in the initial terrible moments she thought about a sermon series on “anchoring” that her pastor had been preaching, and it helped her to see that Hill was bereaved and in pain, and she was praying for him. I don’t know anything about anchoring, but I know I want to learn. Tuff’s compassion and her ability to see herself in her assailant (and him in her) might be as useful a way to think about school violence as any other I’ve seen. In the course of a few days, Tuff proved that the national debate doesn’t have to be about “bad” guys and “tough” guys (or even just “guys” at all). This doesn’t have to be about lose-lose split-second decisions or the simplification of complicated situations for political gain. She shows that this debate is about ongoing, years-in-the-making problems: isolation and loneliness, medical failures, depression and the allure of being a copycat in a culture that celebrates violence. She shows that polarizing debates about bad guys and good guys in the heat of battle are both fatuous and pointless.

This isn’t a call for us all to emulate Tuff’s indescribable personal strength and empathy in crisis situations, although maybe we can redouble our efforts to try. It’s a call for us to emulate these behaviors and qualities in non-crisis situations, to “politicize” her empathy and her patience in our everyday policy discussions about guns and mental illness and making our schools safe. Here’s hoping that it’s neither too soon, nor too late, to inject some of what Tuff brought to the Decatur, Ga., standoff last week, into the way we talk about schools, guns and illness every day.

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate.