Out of violent rampage, a parable of faith and calm
She has become an overnight hero, an instant celebrity in a media age when the nation seems to need something to feel good about. Ashley Smith, the blond waitress with the calm voice and seemingly infinite poise, has become Jessica Lynch with a crystalline memory and perhaps a less choreographed narrative.
Her tale, for the moment, has become the most celebrated seven hours in America - a hostage tale that's sparked conversations from water coolers to the evening news.
For a country used to getting things done with overwhelming force, it was a humbling lesson in Peacemaking 101: how a young mother talked down a troubled man with courage, levelheadedness, and faith in prayer after he had allegedly killed a judge, a court reporter, a sheriff's deputy, and a customs agent.
In a nation grown weary of violence, it offered a reassuring lesson that every now and then people can steer even the most dangerous events to a better end. "At this point in time, to avoid this thing becoming even more crazy, it wasn't a question of who was right or wrong, but how do we get this thing taken care of, managed, so nobody else gets killed?" says Robert Benjamin, a veteran conflict negotiator in Portland, Ore. "And her deft touch, unstudied as it was, was quite frankly a moment of brilliance."
In some ways, she epitomizes the many Americans clinging to the edge of the middle class, working multiple jobs, making mistakes, finding loss and redemption, and enduring tragedy, all while looking for wisdom and comfort in self-help books and Scripture.
Still, she has faced uncommon tragedy: Four years ago, her husband was stabbed in a fight and died in her arms. In the following years, relatives have told newspapers, she allowed men to walk all over her, and some of her friends and family have described how Smith had not quite gotten her life together, and that her mistakes and problems had piled up.
But thrust into a deadly drama, bound in duct tape, Smith spotted a book she'd been reading - the evangelical bestseller "The Purpose-Driven Life" by Rick Warren - and asked her captor if she could read some excerpts.
The idea that her calm stemmed from trust in divine Providence has already hit American pulpits and tapped the nation's growing evangelical streak, providing a boost reminiscent of how Pfc. Jessica Lynch's story bolstered the country's morale in the early days of the Iraq War.
"I think God gave this young lady a supernatural empathy and compassion for someone that most anybody else would have tried to kill," says H.B. London, vice president for ministry outreach/pastoral ministry at Focus on the Family. As she marshaled her resources under duress, he says, "strength wasn't the issue, or force, but reasoning was.... I think our call is to be peacemakers, and that's what she was."
In her account of what happened, Smith engaged Nichols in conversations about life's purpose: "I basically just talked to him and tried to gain his trust."
"He said he thought that I was an angel sent from God," Smith said at a Sunday news conference. "And that I was his sister and he was my brother in Christ. And that he was lost and God led him right to me to tell him that he had hurt a lot of people. And the families - the people - to let him know how they felt, because I had gone through it myself."
Indeed, the language of faith wove itself throughout the ordeal. When Smith read aloud from "The Purpose-Driven Life," Nichols asked her to reread a passage that begins, "We serve God by serving others." She rendered his escape from the courthouse "a miracle" and charged him with a mission: "You need to go to prison and you need to share the word of God with them, with all the prisoners there."
In fact, those who believe a "transformation" occurred in her presence are pointing to a higher source. Already, Smith's story is a touchstone for a nation tracing its spiritual roots in difficult times.
The Rev. Shane Russell, minister of discipleship at the 12,000-member First Baptist Church in Woodstock, Ga., says he intends to invoke her story as one signifying that "wherever we find ourselves in life, God desires a relationship with anyone who would have faith in him."
And Mr. London of Focus on the Family expects that "every Christian organization in the country will want to tell her story" as an example of "how God can sustain a person in a time when most people would have crumbled."
But the parable, at least from a societal view, may not be so cut-and-dried, hostage negotiators say: Disputes where the Bible is wielded are often the toughest to resolve. And while strict ideas of "right" and "wrong" can sound good from the pulpit, they don't always translate easily to daily conundrums and conflicts.
Add a culture of "shooters" and "talkers" that dominates most hostage-negotiation teams and there's a mixed result: While the "take 'em down" approach has yielded many successes, it's also at the root of such tragedies as Ruby Ridge and Waco.
Indeed, Smith's more humanist reaction reminds some observers of Terry Waite, who negotiated the release of two Anglican priests from Libya, and of hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina, who saved hundreds of lives through negotiation during the Rwandan genocide, in a story that inspired the movie "Hotel Rwanda." In those cases, common men became forces to reckon with by virtue of their astute perceptions of human behavior. Authenticity and self-knowledge, not brute force, are key attributes to solving the stickiest standoffs, negotiators say.
"Our culture trains us to make an argument to overwhelm the other side, not to listen to what the other person is saying," says Mr. Benjamin in Portland. In contrast, "[Smith] practiced negotiation at its most noble, artful way, and it's a gut instinct that all of us have, even though, today, we often have other people to do it for us."
To be sure, some commentators, including Rush Limbaugh, have suggested that Nichols "walked all over" Smith, and others have theorized that she fell in love with her captor. But mediators say that, in fact, Smith seemed to have turned Stockholm Syndrome - when a victim grows to defend her tormentor - on its head.
"If Patty Hearst had really done what this woman did, the Symbionese Liberation Army would have surrendered," says Jerry Bagnell, a veteran mediation lecturer at the University of North Carolina in Wilmington, where classes were abuzz with the story on Monday. "This woman did not become an ally or stooge of the hostage holder, or she would have helped him escape."
As experts look for lessons in Smith's accomplishment, they point out how she "textbooked" the hostage-mediation techniques outlined in the FBI's "Hostage Negotiating Stairway." The five steps include lowering the perpetrator's emotional level, empathizing - not that you agree or accept, but that you understand the difficulty of the situation - and developing a rapport of trust and influence, which then leads to behavior change.
"If you can get somebody who is homicidal or suicidal to focus on the future, they have a chance to be filled with hope," says Mr. Bagnell. "She had faith in the fact that the outcome was something that she could influence, but not control."
In the meantime, Christians are hoping their new role model's strength will hold up under another type of pressure: fame.
Monday morning's staff meeting at North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, Ga., began with prayers for Smith, asking God to "protect her" in the bright gaze of national attention, said administrative assistant Dawn Hurley.