There must be several reasons why the story of unarmed suburbanite,
Ashley Smith peacefully winning over armed fugitive, Brian Nichols so
captures the public imagination. Because news accounts of brute force
being used to overcome brute force are the norm, this story stands
out, offering a different kind of heroism. Audiences might applaud
instinctively when the bad guy is trounced by the good guy, but when
words and wits triumph over weapons, cheers rise from a deeper, more
My Jesuit friend puts it this way: Because every human being is
created with instructions for care that recommend "Love your enemies,"
we should not be surprised when, like clothing that is washed or dried
without regard to what is written on the label, we become misshapen in
some way when we substitute vengefulness as our guide.
Ashley Smith recalled her instructions, or perhaps she lived by them
so regularly that she naturally allowed love to be her guide during
her time of crisis. Maybe there was some luck involved, or pure
weariness on Nichols' part, that opened him to the possibility of
love. But the aspect of the story that grabs people most, I think, is
the underlying truth that Smith recognized and that saved both of
them: Brian Nichols was not a monster, he was just a man.
By the time Nichols took Smith hostage, he had committed four terrible
murders one after another while facing charges for a previous crime.
It was a spree almost unheard of. "I cannot believe that's me on
there," Smith reported Nichols saying when he saw himself later on the
TV news. Similar sentiments have echoed during the trials of US
soldiers convicted of using torture against Iraqi civilians. Soldiers
who were described as gentle, caring persons also were capable of committing unthinkable abuse when a process of dehumanization was
involved. What Smith seemed to be able to do when faced with a
threatening, demeaning situation was break through the fear and
indignity by asserting both her own and Nichols' humanity.
Smith recognized a man who needed a meal and someone to talk with.
The media, meanwhile, had built the fugitive into a larger-than-life
menace who was a danger to an entire city. In a way, Nichols was
given more stature by the very institutions that vowed to undo him. I
don't think it's a stretch to make a similar argument about what the
US government did to mythologize former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein,
heaping upon one man so much vilification that the effect was actually
a paradoxical inflation of the leader's standing in the world. By
making him the embodiment of evil, the US loaned him more power than
he really had. Following the invasion, when he emerged from his
hideout disheveled and confused, suddenly the world saw the man as
man-sized. Had it really required the full firepower of the most
powerful military force in the world to capture this pitiful human
Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "While abhorring segregation, we shall
love the segregationist. This is the only way to create the beloved
community." Over and over, he stressed separating the doer from the
deed. He believed this was a crucial element to nonviolent struggle
not only because of the moral obligation to love our enemies, but
because he knew that part of the "truth-force" that Gandhi taught was
to understand that men are neither gods nor devils to be falsely
exalted by either praise or scorn. A beloved community relies upon
honesty and equality, which are both endangered when anyone is given
the powerful and illusive label of "bad guy."
I have the luxury of distance in the Smith - Nichols case. If one of
my family members had been among Nichols' victims, would I be able to
see him as Smith did? Probably not at first. But, I believe that I
would in time seek a meeting with him so that I could express my anger
and grief directly and ask for some kind of reconciliation. That is
something I could ask of a man, not a monster.
Susan Van Haitsma (email@example.com) is active with Central Texas Fellowship of Reconciliation and Nonmilitary Options for Youth.