When someone does something dazzling — like talking down a would-be mass murderer who enters a school to start shooting — it’s easy to feel like we couldn’t do that ourselves. But what’s special about Antoinette Tuff, the elementary school secretary who did just this in Georgia last week, is that the actions she took are nothing you or I couldn’t do as well. The steps she took are consistent with many other stories I’ve encountered of effective nonviolent resistance against a violent threat.
In a video interview, Tuff acknowledged that she was “terrified.” A man came into the school office with heavy automatic weapons and ammunition on display, and he said that he expected to die that day.
Tuff, a young mother, struck up a conversation. She didn’t give up trying to stop him even as she heard police arriving for a shoot-out that might leave a number of children and school personnel dead. By the end of their conversation, the shooter surrendered himself.
As they talked, she refused to accept the shooter’s script for how the day would go, explicitly contradicting it multiple times: “You don’t need to die,” she reminded him. She didn’t pretend to hide her fear and reach for bravado. Instead, she related to what in the shooter was, in his own broken way, authentic.
She listened. She learned that he hadn’t taken his medication. She asked further questions and each time waited for him to answer, sometimes repeating his answers back to let him know she was listening. She anchored herself as she sat in her chair behind the desk, remembering that she had a relationship with a higher power.
As she listened, she accessed from inside herself various points of identification. He said his last name was Hill, which she said was her mom’s maiden name. She told the shooter about her disabled son. Her own life has been hard. She told him little stories about herself, hoping that something in them would connect with his own life, and sometimes they did.
She affirmed him. When he said he’d gone to that school as a boy, she said she remembered him (although that may have been an exaggeration). At one point she said, “I love you.” At another point she called him “sweetie.”
She reassured him. She said that he could drink the water he’d brought with him, that she would stay right there with him, that she would sit in plain sight so the police could see that she was okay and not harmed.
She waited until he began to trust her before she gave instructions. Then she told him to put his weapons on the table and, after that, to lie on the floor behind the office counter, putting a kind of shield between him and the police. And then what almost certainly would have been a horrible tragedy was over.
In no way do I mean to diminish how remarkable her intervention was. She was a hero, no doubt. But we don’t need to let that fact make her actions seem more extraordinary than they were. I believe our job is not to let heroes make us feel smaller, but instead to learn from them and grow so that on a good day we, also, can pull off a saving grace.
By choosing to be courageous (and I believe it is a choice), Antoinette Tuff expanded her perception and was able to notice many things that she could make work for her, aspects about him and also about her own situation. That’s pro-survival.
When we’re up against a violent threat, however, it’s easy to imagine that those using violence are simple-minded and have only one goal. That kind of narrowing is anti-survival.
People who succeed in diffusing potentially violent situations often do so with some way of broadening their initial perception of the conflict. We can pay attention to the group dynamics of the attackers and use what we learn to undermine their self-confidence. We can build social ties with the people around us to ensure it’s clear that we’re looking out for one another. We can step back from provocations and respond with calm and dignity.
The would-be mass murderer whom Antoinette Tuff encountered at the office that morning would get high ratings from anyone for single-mindedness. But rather than focusing on that, she chose to widen her perception and discover a side of him other than how he initially presented himself.
It is a lesson for us all.
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