Fall shooting season in America took a horrifying turn on Monday morning when a deranged man shot and killed a number of Amish girls in a one-room schoolhouse.
The 32 year old man, Charles Carl Roberts, IV, left suicide notes for his family, took three guns into a one-room Amish school near his home in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, barricaded the doors, and started firing at the school girls at point blank range. Three people died on the scene, and two others died in hospitals overnight. The gruesome details have been broadcast so widely that they hardly need to be repeated here.
As news of the tragedy unfolded Monday afternoon, the media were at first confused by the details. It quickly came out that the killer, a truck driver who lived nearby, had murdered six children, though that figure was later revised to two children and an older girl who was a teacher’s aide. The other two children died later. The blogosphere lit up with compassion and sadness—people posting their distress at the grim news. The Lancaster television station, WGAL, opened a comment forum on its website and within a few hours scores of people had posted their sorrows and their prayers for the victims.
Of the more than 4,000 blog posts about the tragedy listed on Bloglines later Monday afternoon, many were simply links to news stories or well-meaning expressions of sorrow. A few, unfortunately, were tasteless and ignorant. One self-styled conservative wrote in his blog, “as often as we conservatives have joked about the Amish being prime terrorism suspects, it seems that one has finally gone and become a terrorist. Somehow, somewhere, I’m sure someone’s going to find a way to pin this one on President Bush and the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy.”
Another defensive blog post, from a gun rights group, commented, “another case of innocent victims being unable to defend themselves. ‘Gun Free Zones’ are only gun free for the intended victims.” Other bloggers were similarly unaware that the Amish often own guns, but they only use them for hunting purposes. They would never use a gun on another person, even for self defense. Fortunately, those kinds of comments represented only a small minority of opinions about the murders.
The news media provided much better information on the story later on Monday and Tuesday morning. Papers such as the Harrisburg Patriot News, the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, and USA Today, among others, published effective stories that accurately represented the Amish lifestyle. Many of the journalists took the time to interview prominent scholars, such as Donald Kraybill and several others, in order to suggest how the families of the victims and other members of their community will probably react to the tragedy.
When the Lancaster Intelligencer Journal interviewed Kraybill, who lives in Lancaster county himself, he mentioned that he had already been contacted by reporters from ABC, CNN, Fox, NBC, Newsweek, and international sources from Australia and Japan. Other news organizations have subsequently quoted him. Some live television interviews with Kraybill discussing the tragedy are also accessible on the Web.
Not surprisingly, Kraybill, who has extensive contacts with the Amish in his area, emphasized to the reporters the peacefulness of the people and how surprising this kind of tragedy would be to them. “They take the words of Jesus seriously: to love your enemies and not to do evil to fellow people. There is very little violence in the Amish community.”
He told a Pennsylvania newspaper that he did not expect the Amish to make any outcry about the murders. He said he was not aware of any other incidents of violence in an Amish school, either by one of their own or by an outsider. He felt it would be accepted as an aberration, a tragedy caused by a sick man. Kraybill indicated that they would turn to their faith to deal with the event, since they really can’t understand God’s larger purposes.
He amplified that theme to the Lancaster Intelligencer Journal. “I think they have a sense of resignation in accepting these kinds of things as somehow a part of God’s larger plan,” he said. “There may be some good or purpose that they don’t see that may be hidden here. With their long history of suffering, they are remarkable in terms of being able and willing to accept things and not to quarrel with them. In some ways, perhaps, they are more prepared than anyone for these kinds of events.”
Other scholars of Amish studies have also been quoted by the press. When David Weaver-Zercher, a professor at Messiah College in Pennsylvania who has also written books on the Amish, first heard the news on Monday, he never even suspected that the killer might be a member of their community. He told one reporter that an Amish person would never use a gun on another person.
One point that comes out clearly in these more substantial news stories on Monday’s tragedy: the Amish never resist the aggression of others. They accept absolutely the message of peace and nonviolence that Jesus so clearly articulated in the Sermon on the Mount—even in the face of Monday’s terrible violence.