When worlds COLLIDE

The Amish community, isolated from modern technology, is shaken first by gun violence, then by outsiders

October 08, 2006|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,Sun Reporter

NICKEL MINES, Pa. — NICKEL MINES, Pa.-- --In a world where violence is shunned and the noises seldom get much louder than the rhythmic clip-clop of horse hooves on pavement, 18 shots rang out in a one-room schoolhouse, hitting 10 children and killing at least five.

In a place where tranquillity is savored, hoopla ruled: Helicopters whirred above, and the roads were filled with police officers, TV news trucks, well-wishers and gawkers. Some vacationers went so far as to request their Amish country bus tours add the schoolhouse to the list of sights to see. There were threats from a fringe religious group to protest the funeral, and bikers who showed up to see that they didn't.

In a culture where technology is eschewed, it was everywhere: from the satellite dishes dotting the horizon to the TV cables running alongside the road like spilled spaghetti, puzzling the horses that haul the buggies that carry the Amish, who - next to violence - abhor nothing more than being in the spotlight.

"The spectacle at Nickel Mines just totally grates against how the Amish like to relate to the world," Herman D. Bontrager, secretary-treasurer of the National Committee for Amish Religious Freedoms, said Wednesday.

"The greatest desire of the Amish is not to be in the limelight," added Bontrager, a Mennonite who grew up in an Amish home in Indiana. "They want to live simple and humble lives and not make a show of themselves."

It was not so much a collision of cultures in the little village of Nickel Mines, Pa., last week - both would have to be moving to call it that. Instead, it was more an assault, a blindsiding, a hit-and-run of innocent bystanders. And bystanders don't come much more innocent than this.

First came the crime: perpetrated by, albeit a neighbor, a member of the outside world, who apparently intended to molest the students, ages 6 to 13, but opened fire on them and then killed himself, after police arrived outside the school.

Then came confusion: Though the Amish regularly deal with medical and law enforcement professionals, the aftermath of the crime was complicated because Amish families have no photographs of their children; and, since their custom is to all dress the same, identifying the bodies was problematic. Cultural quandaries arose as well when some of the families were offered helicopter rides to hospitals. The Old Order Amish don't travel by air.

Then came the outside world: hordes of news media representatives from around the globe, then the curious, who, while generally well-meaning, added to the traffic snarls.

By week's end, as the children were buried in simple Amish funerals, the outside world was drifting away, and the media spotlight, which has never shined so intensely on an Amish community as it did last week, faded - thankfully, in the view of both the Amish and a great many non-Amish, many of whom, while offering support, prayers and donations from near and afar, believed that the news media were intruding on a private people's private grief.

As tragic as the killings were, though - as negative, uncomfortable and insensitive as the aftermath might have seemed - the clash of two cultures that usually don't see much of each other might not have been totally bereft of a positive side.

While the Amish see no good in the media exposure, the outpouring of support and prayers from the outside world in the aftermath of the shootings - though it's not likely to change the Amish view of that world as an evil place - could at least renew their faith in some of its members, said Bontrager, who is serving as a liaison between the Amish and the groups and individuals coming forward with offers of assistance.

"The tremendous support that's coming from the dominant culture can only make them feel better about the people in larger society," he said.

Some in mainstream America, meanwhile, where the view of the Amish ranges from ignorance to envy, might have learned that the Amish are more than a tourist attraction, that their culture is about more than old-fashioned people in funny clothes riding buggies, and about the levels that faith and forgiveness can reach.

After losing five children - a sixth is now at home in grave condition - members of the Amish community didn't point fingers, display anger or seek vengeance. They didn't call for stricter gun control laws, criticize the police response or create an action committee. They simply accepted the loss, knocked on the door of the killer's widow, offered condolences and told her all was forgiven.

To some in the outside world, that was stupefying. To others, it, and their behavior in general, showed a grace and dignity rarely seen in modern America. To those who know the Amish, though - more than through movies like 1985's Witness, more than through a tour bus visit to Pennsylvania Dutch Country - it was typical.

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