Two horrific acts of evil, one recent and one 16 years ago, produced a staggering loss of innocent life — and a subsequent struggle to understand how people become vessels of evil, how they rationalize unspeakable acts of violence. Yet these two tragedies also are poignant examples of that which rises up during moments of great peril to remind us there are good people in this world.
The most recent shock to our nation's collective spirit came on a Sunday morning in a Texas town of about 600 people. Its perpetrator was a gun-wielding man whose deeply troubled mental and criminal past put him in a small church as evil incarnate. Wearing a ballistic vest (and other tactical gear) and armed with an AR-15 (with other weapons in his truck), the man shot and killed 26 innocent people. This man, whose social media posts identify him as an atheist who had regularly spoken of his personal disdain for Christians, was neither a Trump supporter nor an NRA member. The shooter was a dishonorably discharged veteran who spent time in a behavioral health facility for threatening his superiors in the U.S. Air Force and who later was locked up in a military jail for violence against his wife and stepson.
Outside the bullet-riddled church, a father, who had been alerted by his daughter of the gunfire next door, ran barefooted with his own AR-15 and took shelter behind a truck. He saw the killer, who was reportedly returning to his truck for more ammunition. Stephen Willeford, a former National Rifle Association instructor, motorcycle enthusiast and Sutherland Springs resident, shot the shooter in the side.
Injured, the shooter jumped into his truck. He was shot at least a second time as he fled. But for Willeford, the danger remained. He ran to Johnnie Langendorff, who was in his pickup truck nearby. He explained that the small church had been shot up. Langendorff, 27, declared, "Let's go," and gave chase. The shooter struck a tree and flipped over. According to reports, he then shot himself.
"Let's go." Sounds a bit like "Let's roll," the exhortation from Todd Beamer, who on the fateful morning of Sept. 11, 2001, signaled to other passengers aboard hijacked United Airlines Flight 93 to charge the cockpit controlled by al-Qaida terrorists. Three other planes were hijacked that morning. The coordinated attack left about 3,000 people dead in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Shanksville, Pa. The "average Joes" aboard Flight 93 ran toward danger and their own deaths to thwart the terrorists' ultimate target, likely the U.S. Capitol or White House.
The Sept. 11 terrorists, vessels of evil, turned commercial aircraft into deadly weapons of murder and destruction. The Texas shooter, whose evil actions decimated a small town, was armed with a weapon similar to the one used by the hero who pursued him to his death.
Despite the headlines, there is tremendous good in the hearts of most men and women. The very items that are safely and routinely used by most individuals are tools of destruction in the hands of those who permit the occupancy of evil in their hearts and minds.
Let's be the vessels of good, not evil.
Robin Smith, a former chairwoman of the Tennessee Republican Party, owns Rivers Edge Alliance.