How Antoinette Tuff’s Miraculous Extension of Love Prevented a School Shooting
We’ve all been stunned by the string of school shootings like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut. What can we do to stop such horrific events? The problem is complex, and I don’t think there are any easy answers when it comes to the details. But I’m convinced that whatever the answers may be on the level of form, on the level of content the answer to this problem is the same answer that A Course in Miracles says will solve every problem, no matter how apparently intractable: love. A miracle worker named Antoinette Tuff gave us a powerful demonstration of this recently when she prevented another school shooting in Georgia, simply by responding to the gunman’s violent call for help with gentle, compassionate love.
The gunman was twenty-year-old Michael Brandon Hall, who on August 20 entered the Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy in Decatur, Georgia with an assault rifle and ample ammunition. He went to the office and took the staff there hostage, including Tuff. She says that when he first came in, he informed her that this was not a joke, and told a teacher to let everyone in the school know that this was serious. Though he did say that he was sorry for what he was doing, Tuff says that “he had a look on him that said he was willing to kill.” He said he had nothing to live for and knew he was going to die that day. As staff in the school learned what was happening, they quickly started evacuating the school.
Tuff was terrified, of course, but she was “it” in this deadly game, so she had to find a way to defuse the situation. She realized that for her and everyone else to get through this safely, she had to turn the situation over to a Power larger than herself, a Power that would give her the strength to love. “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.” Setting aside her terror, she talked to him calmly:
And 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. And it was scary because I knew at that moment that he was ready to take my life along with his, and that if I didn’t say the right thing, we all would be dead.
Tuff tried to calm Hall down any way she could. She asked him his name, but he wouldn’t give it to her at first. She encouraged him, telling him that he did have something to live for. Hall insisted, “No, it’s just over. I’m going to die today,” but Tuff reminded him that he had a choice: “No, you don’t have to die today.” Hall tried to go outside to where the children were, but she called him back in and continued trying to reassure him and calm him down. Eventually, he did exchange gunfire with the police (an exchange that could be heard in the background when she called a media outlet at Hall’s request), but again she called him back. Fortunately, no one was hurt in the exchange of gunfire.
In an effort to connect with Hall, Tuff shared her own story, telling him of some of the painful events she experienced in her own life, especially her divorce after a marriage of thirty-three years. She shared the times when she herself felt unloved and hopeless. She says, “I told him, ‘OK, we all have situations in our lives.’ It was going to be OK. If I could recover, he could, too.” This helped Hall to let down his guard and open up to her. He told her that he was off his medications (his brother later told the press that he was bipolar and suffered from ADD), and that he really should have gone to a mental hospital.
And of course, Tuff tried to convince Hall to surrender. She asked him to lay down his arms, put away his ammo, and do the right thing. Hall reiterated that he was sorry for what he was doing, and wanted everyone to know that. In a remarkable recording of the 911 call Tuff made during the incident, you can hear her voice announcing to the school over the loudspeaker:
“Everybody, this is still a continuous lockdown. The gunmen wants to let everybody know that he’s sorry. He does not want to harm anybody. Everybody stay in place until the lockdown is over.”
Finally, she did get him to surrender. She told the police that he was giving himself up. When he confirmed his decision to surrender, Tuff assured him that he was making the right decision and that she was so happy he was doing it:
We’re not gonna hate you, baby. It’s a good thing that you’re giving up….It’s going to be all right, sweetie. I just want you to know that I love you, though, okay? And I’m proud of you. That’s a good thing that you’ve just given up. Don’t worry about it. We all go through something in life.
When it was all over, Tuff told the 911 dispatcher just how frightened she really was during the incident: “Let me tell you something, baby. I’ve never been so scared in all the days of my life. Oh, Jesus…” She says she never could have gotten through it without God leading the way. She is being hailed as a hero for saving the lives of so many through her grace under pressure, but she says with great humility, “I give it all to God, I’m not the hero. I was terrified. [I kept it together] through His grace and mercy.”
What an amazing story! There’s so much that could be said about it, but several things stand out for me. First, from the very beginning, Tuff made a decision to see Hall not as a monster requiring extermination, but as a brother requiring help: “He was really a hurting young man.” This naturally brings to mind the Course’s famous statement that everything is either an expression of love or a call for healing and help (see T-12.I.3:3-4). Hall’s call for help took the form of a violent attack. But Tuff responded to her brother’s call for help with love, and this made all the difference.
Second, Tuff realized that in order to really help Hall, she needed help. She needed to acknowledge that “it was bigger than me.” Imagine the terror she must have felt, especially knowing that other school shootings have ended up with many people dead. Though Hall expressed regret from the beginning, there was no reason to assume he wasn’t really going to go through with it. So, Tuff immediately started praying for him. She called on the One who alone could give her strength to love. This enabled God to work through her to enable her to do something she could never do alone. As she says, “I give it all to God.” She kept it together through Him.
Third, I’m struck by the fact that with God’s help, she was able to perform this miracle of love even though she was terrified. This feels like a crucial point to me. We often think that to work a miracle, our minds have to be in a state of absolutely fearless perfection. True, the Course does say, “It is essential…that the miracle worker be in his right mind, however briefly” (T-2.V.3:5). But we see from elsewhere in the Course’s dictation that this right-mindedness doesn’t have to be absolutely free of less-than-right-minded elements. I’m reminded of Helen’s rewriting of the Shield Report, which Jesus called a genuine miracle even though Helen was experiencing resentment while she did it. It seems, then, that to work a miracle, the most important thing is simply that our right-mindedness is stronger than whatever might interfere with it. I don’t know about you, but I’m tremendously reassured by that. My mental state doesn’t have to be perfectly pure to perform a miracle.
Finally, I find myself marveling at what a huge difference one person can make. By his own admission, Hall came to the school to die in a shootout with police. That could easily have happened, as it has happened with other school shooters. But instead, he walked into the office and encountered Antoinette Tuff, who was able to see through the appearance of a violent man with a death wish to the frightened youth who in his heart of hearts really wanted to live. He saw no way out of his predicament, but Tuff offered him a better way, and I can imagine that he will be forever changed. It makes me wonder what might have happened with other school shooters if they had encountered the right person at the right time. It makes me hope that if God puts me in the path of someone bent on violence, I could be that person.
What now for Hall? He is charged with aggravated assault on a police officer, terroristic threats, and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon (he has a prior offense). He will almost certainly be convicted and incarcerated, perhaps for some time, and I can certainly understand the need to protect others and himself from whatever dangerous things he might do if he is off his meds and on the streets. But I hope that whatever the legal consequences for his actions, he is able to get the help he needs for his mental illness. I hope there will be more Antoinette Tuffs in his life to remind him that whatever he does, he is loved, he doesn’t have to die, he can recover too, and everything is going to be okay.
Indeed, I hope everyone in need of help will be blessed with miracle workers like her, and I hope we will all make every effort to become such miracle workers ourselves. To the degree that we can see those who attack not as monsters calling for condemnation but as brothers calling for help, we will know what to do about school shootings and every other problem that besets us. Miracles will solve every problem with equal ease when we can sincerely say to everyone those blessed words our loving Father eternally says to all of us: “I just want you to know that I love you.”
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