March 11 brought another one of those shocking episodes of ultra-violence
that saturate the national media for a news cycle or two. In Atlanta’s
county courthouse, a man on trial for rape wrestled a handgun away from a
sheriff’s deputy, tracked down and killed a judge and three others, and then
The man proceeded to carjack several vehicles, along the way pistol-whipping
one driver who happened to be a reporter for the Atlanta
Journal-Constitution, and succeeded in eluding the police dragnet in
downtown Atlanta. With the entire Georgia law enforcement apparat and
a host of journalists in pursuit, he disappeared into the night.
Up to that point, this looked to be a one-day story about rage, violence,
and rebellion. Then something happened that turned it into a more
sensational and longer- running tale.
Twenty-six hours after the shootings in the courthouse, the suspect, Brian
Nichols, 33, surrendered to police after a woman he had held hostage
overnight in her apartment persuaded him to give himself up peacefully.
Let’s restate that with a little more contextual detail: In the Deep South,
an African-American man, an accused rapist and alleged murderer, held a
young, white woman hostage in her own apartment and, after spending the
night in intense spiritual conversation, was persuaded by her to go quietly
into police custody.
And so, a violent crime story pivoted into a classic American morality tale
that boggled the minds of cops, reporters, and millions of citizens. “The
story is simple, powerful and profound: a rampage of pure evil followed by
an act of pure redemption,” Eugene Robinson wrote in the Washington Post
on March 18, capturing the deeply appealing essence of the story.
Ashley Smith, 26, formed a bond with Nichols by sharing her evangelical
Protestant faith and making him pancakes for breakfast.
“After we began to talk, he said he thought that I was an angel sent from
God,” Smith explained in an interview with CNN on March 14. “And that I was
his sister and he was my brother in Christ. And that he was lost and God led
him right to me to tell him that he had hurt a lot of people.”
She may have been an angel to Nichols, but to law enforcement officials in
Atlanta she was a hero. Headlines across the country adopted both monikers.
That, however, was not all. In the third phase of the story, details about
Smith’s background came to light, and a new metaphysical plane was reached.
As Michelle Hiskey’s front-page article in the Journal-Constitution
put it March 15, “Smith is an angel with a troubled past.”
For all her evangelical upbringing, Smith had a record of petty crime,
including a drunken driving arrest, and had done a stint in drug rehab. Four
years earlier, her husband had died in her arms after being stabbed in a bar
fight, and their five-year-old daughter was living with relatives while
Smith struggled to put her life back together.
The key foible, though, was her penchant for Marlboro Lights: It was as
Smith was returning from a late-night cigarette run that Nichols allegedly
took her hostage. As Andrew Sullivan put it in his Time magazine
column on March 28, “One was a monster, the other a woman unable to care for
her 5-year-old, looking for cigarettes in the dark.”
So Smith the angel morphed into an even more potent religious figure: the
Many journalists were puzzled by how fiercely Smith’s co-religionists,
including her own family, embraced the wounded healer image. Family members
“accept media reports of Smith’s criminal background as part of the story
they want the public to know,” Hiskey and S.A. Reid of the
Journal-Constitution reported March 16. “This is a wonderful platform
for Ashley to give her testimony, that everyone is worthy of a third or
fourth start,” Smith’s aunt, Kim Rogers, told them.
Numerous articles reprinted Rogers’ explanation about what had enabled Smith
to reach someone like Nichols: “She felt the sadness and she felt the
aloneness; she could relate. I don’t think a socialite or a squeaky clean
could have done that,” Shaila Dewan and Laurie Goodstein of the New York
Times reported on March 16. This struck a chord with commentators, and
it became the key to the story’s powerful appeal to so many people, “She
talked with him as one hurting soul to another.” Ashley Smith’s story
“became an instant classic of sin, redemption and grace.”
Smith’s new identity was only enhanced by the revelation that she had
achieved her healing mission (at least in part) by reading to Nichols from
the current Christian publishing phenome-non, The Purpose Driven Life,
by California megachurch pastor Rick Warren.
“This is a woman who understands grace,” Warren told USA Today on
March 23. “She’s gone through some tough times in her own life, and that’s
why she was able to be gracious to Brian. Ashley saw him as someone who was
Nor did it hurt that the Nichols-Smith story broke just in time for the
Easter season. “In this season of redemption, the symbolism of that
encounter is resonating with the faithful,” Neely Tucker and Manuel
Roig-Franzia of the Washington Post wrote on March 20.
In Atlanta, Smith became a popular subject for Palm Sunday sermons, the
Journal-Constitution’s Hiskey reported on March 26. “Her story
features the elements of faith marked during Holy Week: sin, sacrifice,
For a week or so, the saga received huge play almost everywhere in American
journalism: in news stories, features, columns, editorials, network news
broadcasts, cable news chat shows, morning programs. Anyone who had ever met
Smith, it seemed, was paraded in front of cable news cameras.
As the story swelled, more and more people noticed how smoothly,
efficiently, and adeptly the American media, usually pilloried as hostile to
religion, handled the Christian inner meaning of the story. On March 16, the
Christian Science Monitor chalked it up to the growth of
evangelicalism: “The idea that her calm stemmed from trust in divine
Providence has already hit American pulpits and tapped into the nation’s
growing evangelical streak.” It is also likely that, since the story took
place in Atlanta, journalists from other parts of the country were
conditioned to buy into what they assumed were the local evangelical mores.
The journalistic embrace of the evangelical message was so enthusiastic that
it triggered several alarms. Frank Rich, writing on March 27 in the New
York Times about Lee Ratzmann, a Wisconsin man who allegedly shot three
of his fellow congregants in a Lutheran church, complained that “the
religious elements of these stories, including the role played by the
end-of-times fatalism of Mr. Ratzmann’s church, are left largely unexamined
by the same news outlets that serve up Ashley Smith’s tale as an
inspirational parable for profit.”
In the May 2 issue of the New Republic, Lee Siegel took a similarly
dim view: “Consider the past few weeks, in which American television
discovered God. First you had the television news people popping up in
Atlanta and transforming themselves into evangelical Christians in order to
perform—not report—the story of Ashley Smith, who claimed that God had used
her as a divine instrument in his (disconcertingly messy) plan to bring a
sinner into the light.”
Yet even as journalists recognized and celebrated Ashley Smith’s evangelical
tale of sin and redemption in the South, they danced carefully away from the
elephant in the room: race.
It has not been that long since lynchings took place in the Deep South for
far less than what Ben Nichols did to Ashley Smith. Indeed, the story of
Smith’s hostage-taking took place just as FBI investigators, with much
fanfare, were planning to exhume the body of Emmett Till, the teenager whose
lynching in Mississippi in 1955 helped usher in the civil rights movement.
In other words, even as they wallowed in the conventions of Southern
religion, journalists proved unwilling to explore the symbolic heft of that
ugliest of Old South stereotypes—the black male predator who terrorizes the
flower of Southern womanhood.
Doing so would have made clear that in the early 21st-century South, or at
least in metropolitan Atlanta, white supremacists demanding instant justice
seem to have disappeared. A similar marker of a new day in Dixie was the
fact that Brian Nichols was better educated than Ashley Smith and came from
a more stable family background. On the other hand, attention might have
been paid to the possibility that Nichols’ rage was fueled by what,
according to Beth Warren’s March 15 story in the Journal-Constitution,
he perceived the “systematic slavery” of African Americans in the Georgia
Meanwhile, all was perhaps not quite as advertised on the religion front.
For however strong the spirit of purpose-driven repentance was that Smith
communicated on the night of March 12, it’s worth noting that after being
charged with murder and aggravated assault, Nichols entered a plea of: Not