Tuesday, October 3, 2006

Lamentations For Lancaster

If Truman Capote had been born fifty years later than he was, if he had not yet penned In Cold Blood, I wonder if he would've chosen the shooting rampage in Pennsylvania Amish country for his non-fiction novel instead of a mass murder in rural Kansas.

On its face, the story has the foundation of a gothic horror novel -- a disturbed, heavily-armed stranger walking into the peace of an Amish schoolroom, shattering the picturesque scene of boys and girls in black pants and long dresses with the evil of unknown revenge. He lets the boys go. He barricades the door. He lines the girls up at the chalkboard. He ties their feet with wire and plastic. And then he opens fire, ending the bloodshed with suicide.

The television pictures show the clash of two worlds: horse-drawn buggies parked next to police cruisers, helicopters flying above the crowds of traditionally-dressed Amish in their straw hats and bonnets. We see the women hug and cry from above, tapping into the strength of the community. A few Amish, amazingly, even give television interviews despite the traditional aversion to cameras.

Despite their lack of telephones, computers, and cars the Amish consistently rank high in surveys of happiness. It is not the bliss of ignorance, I believe, but the contentment of living in a society which values humanity and community over possesions and wealth. I am sure they consider themselves wealthy in ways we don't think of. Celebrities may pursue Kabbalah or Trancendental Meditation or Scientology or whatever the hip religion is nowadays, but the Amish stick to what has worked for them for more than a century. The children are always given the choice -- "Rumspringa" -- to venture into the outside world before deciding whether to join the Amish for life. Most do.

Looking at the footage coming into the newsroom from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, part of my heart breaks as the least deserving suffer unthinkable loss. "This is a horrendous, horrific incident for the Amish community. They're solid citizens in the community. They're good people. They don't deserve ... no one deserves this," State Police Commissioner Jeffrey B. Miller told the Associated Press.

I wonder what the Amish community of Nickel Mines thinks of the rest of the world now. It could draw them deeper into isolation, but it could also draw them closer together. I wonder how the surviving children will cope once they leave the modern-day hospitals and try to resume life as they knew it. I wonder how future generations will hear this story, or if they will hear it at all, the survivors burying their blood-soaked memories with the dead.

I wonder how the Amish of Nickel Mines will talk of "the English" after this. Will this tragedy sparked by an outsider become an angry justification for the way they live, the abandonment of modern life and its ills? I think not. But within them, they know they have chosen the simple life, communal and humble, for a reason. This burst of violence confirms that choice.

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