October 04, 2006

Death is seldom easy to bear, but to lose so many innocent children to such unspeakable horror as took place Monday in a barricaded one-room schoolhouse in Lancaster County is a tragedy beyond measure. And yet the image that will haunt us for a long time is not the TV helicopter-eye view of that pastoral killing ground in tiny Nickel Mines, Pa., but the congregation of Amish, men in their dark clothes and straw hats and women in equally plain dress standing a silent vigil outside the police crime-scene tape. They are transfixed by the grim proceedings but powerless to do much about them.

Today, we are Amish. We are standing on the outside trying to understand this incomprehensible act of violence. How could a man, a father of three who family members insist has lived a rational life, shoot these young girls in such a carefully planned and brutal manner? As of late yesterday afternoon, police say five of Charles Carl Roberts IV's victims are dead; five others remain hospitalized in critical condition.

This is a crime that will no doubt be analyzed and scrutinized and dissected by police, forensic psychiatrists and other experts in considerable detail. Police have offered evidence that Mr. Roberts had a confused and twisted mind. He claimed to have abused children in the past and dreamed of doing so again. He may have harbored deep guilt, anger and self-loathing.

So, too, the tragedy will raise familiar questions of public policy. We will no doubt re-examine the too-easy availability of firearms in this country; the propensity for violent attacks in schools, what motivates them and how to make schools more secure; and whether the steady cultural diet of violence in our news and entertainment incites imitators or merely inspires mind-numbing indifference and acceptance.

But it's difficult to take much comfort from explanations or outrage. They cannot hold a dead man accountable, or raise his victims, or restore their grieving families. What we must deal with now is a sadness and a sense of disquietude that such a thing could happen in this country, particularly to a religious brethren that abhors violence and rejects the vanity and materialism of 21st-century life.

We've seen too many bullets fired into too many children for too long. A terrible hurt has been inflicted. Nickel Mines may be a 90-minute drive and a cultural world away from Baltimore, but it doesn't feel so far apart right now.

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