Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Today's Events: the Awesome and the Terrifying

Today was National (or International, depending on who you ask) Ask an Atheist Day. I planned and ran the Free@VT-sponsored booth here at Virginia Tech, and as one of my fellow participants said, the day was "99% totally awesome open dialogue, and 1% horrible obscene worst-case-scenario."

First, the awesome stuff. While the day started off slowly, we had a definite increase in interest and traffic as the day went on. By noon, we had a pretty much constant group of students around the booth, and several atheists who hadn't known about Free@VT had dropped by to pick up a meeting schedule or sign up for our listserv (including a student in the Corps of Cadets, who was feeling a bit out outcast in the military setting and was excited to hear of an atheist-friendly group on campus!). Even more delightful was the number of people who were actually asking us questions.

We had a veritable flood of students from some of the on-campus Christian organizations, most notably from Campus Crusade for Christ. Both sides of the discussion -- and, surprised as I was, it was, in all cases, a discussion, not an argument -- were very polite, and genuinely interested in having an open dialogue. Questions ranged from wondering whether we celebrated Christmas, to where we got our morals, to our thoughts on the origin of life and the universe, to whether we believed if Jesus ever existed, and beyond.

Perhaps a measure of the respect we were treated with was due to the fact that many of our volunteers were grad students, but I don't really think that's what it was. At Virginia Tech, there seems to be a high expectation from everyone, not just from the establishment, that others be treated with respect until they've done something showing that they're not worthy of that. Hokies, as a whole, are a family, and while we may disagree on some things, we try our utmost to be, at least, civil.

As I said, however, there was that 1% of the day that was heinously awful.

To explain that, I'm going to take the lazy way out and quote from Gordon Block's article in the Collegiate Times, because I don't want to type or explain it again:

Virginia Tech Police were called to the Drillfield Wednesday afternoon following a report of a student stabbing his own hand with a pen.

Police were called at 1:19 p.m. by a 911 call from a witness at the scene.

Alexander M. Huppert, a freshman university studies major, then assaulted an officer who approached to check his welfare, according to a police press release. After a short struggle with the officer and several witnesses, he was taken into custody.

The incident took place near a table promoting a local version of “Ask an Atheist Day.” The student group Freethinkers at Virginia Tech sponsored the table.

Witnesses said Huppert stood near the table for nearly an hour. Approaching the table, Huppert borrowed a pen and drew a circle with a cross inside on the back of his hand.

Nicole Schrand, a senior psychology major, said Huppert then asked students at the table to stab him in the cross with the pen to “prove to us God existed.” The students declined.

“We don’t believe in assaulting people,” Schrand said. “We’re very against assaulting people.”

Huppert then asked for the pen back, a request Schrand and other students declined. Seeing another pen, Huppert grabbed it and began stabbing himself in the back of the hand.

“If it had been a more streamlined pen, I would have expected it to go through,” Schrand said.

Wade Duvall, who was also working at the table, walked away from the table to call police. Duvall, a graduate student studying physics, first called the Tech Police non-emergency number.

“They told me to hang up and call 911,” Duvall said.

Tyler Pease, a freshman communication major, intervened when he saw Huppert attempting to stab himself in the wrist. Pease, a member of Campus Crusade for Christ, convinced Huppert into giving him the pen.

Schrand said Huppert attempted to confront Duvall after seeing him on the phone, but several people at the table stood between the two.

Duvall said an officer showed up in less than a few minutes. He said Huppert did not cooperate with the officer’s command to take his hands out of his pocket.

Duvall said Huppert then “smacked” the officer on the scene. In the resulting struggle, the officer called for assistance to apprehend Huppert.

“He kept calling for help,” Duvall said. “So I joined.”

Duvall initially grabbed Huppert’s arm. Pease also assisted in subduing Huppert. With additional officers responding, Huppert was taken into custody.

“I was shaking after it was over,” Duvall said.

Pease said the incident ended “better than I expected.”

“As soon as he started hurting himself I was thinking to myself this could go really, really badly," Pease said.

Onlookers were surprised at how quickly the situation escalated.

“I didn’t realize what was going on until police subdued him,” said Brenda Hawkinson, who observed the incident. Hawkinson described Huppert as “glassy-eyed.”

The release said that while in custody Huppert broke out a police car window and assaulted two other officers. None of the officers’ injuries required medical attention, and no other individuals were injured during the incident.

Huppert was charged with three counts of felony assault on a police officer, as well as charges of resisting arrest and destruction of property.

He was processed and transferred to Montgomery County Jail, where he is being held without bond.

The report said the investigation was still ongoing.

Schrand said the incident was not “what we were hoping would happen” during the event. Schrand noted the desire to remain polite during the event.

“We did not try to be offensive ever,” Schrand said.

Pease commended the group for having a “very open dialogue” during the event.

It was absolutely horrible. I mean, it's pretty awful in the first place to have someone request that you stab them in the hand. And then to have him stab himself in front of you. Blood was welling up out of the wounds afterward. The two guys who helped subdue him had their hands covered in blood. And in case it wasn't clear in the article, he wasn't just scratching at his wrist with the pen -- it looked like he was trying to drive it through his radial artery.

As a psych student, I know that I'm not qualified to make calls on people's mental fitness until I've had training in that field and have been licensed. Still, I think it is not irresponsible of me to say that this man was clearly disturbed. The thing that indicated this most to me was the fact that, while he was doing all this, he was talking about how what we were doing was great, he was so happy we were promoting an open dialogue, and so on, and when we asked him if there was anything he wanted to talk about, if he could relate what he was doing just in words, just talk with us instead of what he was doing, he couldn't answer. It was clear that he was trying to figure it out himself, that he couldn't explain it. The whole thing just screamed of cognitive dissonance.

Beyond that, I can't really say much other than I'm still shaken up by what happened, and I'm incredibly grateful that Tyler Pease had the presence of mind and the proper manner to be able to help in the way that he did. Pease is a Cru member, and was talking to us when the incident began. If he hadn't been able to calm Huppert down, I suspect things would have been a lot worse, as we volunteers felt unable to come around to the other side of the table without chancing provoking Huppert further. Even if we don't share the same views on everything, Tyler Pease was a hero in my book today.


  1. Came here via the Friendly Atheist. It sounds like everyone involved responded appropriately, from the civil discussion right before to the professionalism of the officers and Pease's courage.

    Your being shaken by this is also appropriate; indeed it would be odd if you weren't. Take time to work it out, talk to others as you need to. Thank you for sharing this.

  2. Wow. I'd be shaken as well.

    Thanks for the report--the good, as well as the terrifying.

  3. Hi,
    I came to your blog from the link on the Friendly Atheist.
    I guess I'm wondering how on earth he thought that would 'prove' a 'god' but I guess, after reading your post, it seems that he didn't know either.
    I'm sorry you had to witness that - I'd be so freaked out! (And I probably would've fainted at the sight of all the blood, which would've added to the craziness of the situation!) I hope that kid gets the help he so clearly needs.
    Keep doin' what you're doin'!

  4. I'm just glad you're ok. That's a situation that easily could have turned worse.

    I'm sorry that the good part of the day got overshadowed by someone suffering mental problems. I just wonder if it happened out of the blue or if the people in his life had seen signs of violence? I hope he gets some help.

  5. As far as I've been able to find, Alex Huppert has been, up to this point, an all-around great guy. Maybe a little shy and withdrawn, but smart and even heroic. He was Hero of the Year in Haymarket in 2009. I'm told this was due to his saving a young boy's life who was in full cardio and pulmonary arrest.

    This seems to me to further support the hypothesis of onset of a severe psychiatric disorder.

  6. nicole,I am Tyler's mom and I can't tell you how much I appreciate your kind words about Tyler. As a mom you hope you have raised responsible, respectful and caring children. It is obvious that your mom has done the same thing in raising you. I actually am courtney's summer boss at Little Neck and she too is a great kid. So glad you all were not hurt and hopefully Alex will get the help he needs. As a blogger myself, you write really well. Thanks again for mentioning Tyler. Take care. Suzi pease

  7. I'm sorry to read about what you went through. It seems you responded as well as could be expected given the situation. I've always found it helpful to remember that however distressing a situation like that is for me, the person having the episode is having a much harder time of it. I hope the poor guy is ok.