Last month, a 20-year-old young man by the name of Michael Hill walked into an elementary school in Decatur, Ga., with an assault rifle, two bags filled with 500 rounds of ammunition, and a plan that would dump salt into an American wound that seems like it may never heal.
However, what ultimately occurred was an act of compassion that thwarted a potentially devastating loss of life. The difference? The brave and compassionate actions of Antoinette Tuff, a clerk at the school—an everyday woman who saw past Michael's violent posturing to see a tortured young man.
Recurring mass shootings point to a problem within the larger system.
When these types of all-too-common events occur, we often hear about the bravery of those involved—the victims, the families, the police, and other responders. But this is the first time we’ve heard about a brave and compassionate response to such a grave threat.
When things go wrong in this society, our first response is often to find and punish those involved. Perhaps it's to make an example of them. Or to satisfy a more basic impulse for revenge. We are good at doling out punishment in this country; just take a quick look at our prison and incarceration data.
Since 1982, this country has endured over 60 mass shootings. More than half of those shootings have occurred in the last 15 years, beginning with the shooting at Columbine High School in 1999. Punishing an individual for a single crime may remove or discourage that individual public threat; however, when we are met with recurring tragic events, such as the recent rash of mass shooting, this points to a larger problem within the larger system, of which the individual only makes up one part.
In the media furor following such shootings, we begin to ask ourselves how this happened. This often sparks a somewhat superficial debate about guns or video games, with the usual political suspects taking their seemingly preordained sides—blindly pointing fingers and/or defending their standard political positions.
And instead of scrutinizing their own positions or wondering what else can be done, they stick to their political talking points, afraid of risking their own political party's favor in the service of their country. And so we (the American people) are left to endure months of political theater about gun laws and video game ratings, while our lawmakers pass vapid and toothless legislation, and pat themselves on the back for a "job well-done."
In order to prevent such occurrences in the future, we have to look beyond the furor of blame and punishment.
Meanwhile, young men continue to spiral out of control—killing our children in a process of what is clearly a last, desperate, and often fatal cry for help. And instead of answering that cry, we point at these young men as the archetypes of villainy.
Don't misunderstand. I do not condone their crimes. But as a scientist and student of psychology, I know that in order to prevent such occurrences in the future, we have to look beyond the furor of blame and punishment. We need to understand what motivates these young men to perpetrate such heinous acts and address the impetus for their motivations.
All too often we are infatuated with how something happened, without stopping to consider "why?" We content ourselves with the notion that these young men are just "sick" or "mentally unstable." Yet, these apathetic dismissals stagnate our ability as a society to understand why certain young men act out in this way. And such dismissals ultimately prevent us from finding real solutions that work.
Last month, trapped in a terrible situation and fearing for her life, Antoinette Tuff reached out to a would-be killer (that is, a young man) with compassion and empathy.
Here are a few of the words she said to Michael Hill and to dispatchers on the school intercom (the full transcript is available at CNN):
I can help you.
No, it does matter. I can let them know that you have not tried to harm me or do anything to me.
Well, don’t feel bad, baby, my husband just left me after 33 years.
We not gonna hate you, baby.
He wants me to go on the intercom and tell everybody that he’s sorry.
It’s going to be all right, sweetie. I just want you to know that I love you, though, and that I’m proud of you.
We all go through something in life.
If just one compassionate conversation with a stranger could compel this young man to lay down his arms and reconsider his violent intent, what might have occurred if this young man had felt this level of compassion from someone in his life days, weeks, or years earlier?
Beyond their demographic profile, the young men who commit these types of violent crimes tend to have one thing in common: they are socially isolated. The perpetrators of these crimes are often young men with few people in their lives who they believe truly care about them. They feel as though they have nothing and no one to live for.
What these young men really want and need is what all of us want and need: to know that we are truly loved and valued by someone—anyone.
They are (at the very least) intensely depressed. And often have additional pervasive cognitive or emotional disabilities such as schizophrenia or antisocial personality disorder. However, it is important to understand that it is the combination of these disturbances that can lead to the potential for violence.
Aggressive impulses are a common symptom of male depression. But the majority of otherwise stable men find ways to express their aggression without hurting others—playing sports, shouting at the television, even punching a wall.
But it is severe, longstanding depression, combined with additional serious mental deficits, that compel a few young men to extreme acts of violence. But what these young men really want and need is what all of us, as human beings, want and need: to know that we are truly loved and valued by someone.
Antoinette Tuff showed a young man this type of genuine compassion, even while he was in the midst of pursuing terrible acts. And having gotten the one, true thing that caused him to show up to that school in the first place—acknowledgement, love, and compassion from another person—Michael put down his gun and turned himself in.
• This article originally appeared in The Good Men Project. Dr. Aqualus Gordon earned his Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Texas, Austin. He specializes in men's issues, male psychology, and human sexuality. He currently lives in New Hampshire, where he is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.