Black Friday Sale: Get 75% off a digital subscription

When worlds collide

Sun Reporter

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.

Public interest in the Amish swelled after Witness, and it swells whenever there is a crime that seems contradictory to what many mistakenly perceive as their complete isolation, said Thomas J. Meyers, director of international education at Mennonite-owned Goshen College in Indiana.

"It's a myth to say they've ever been totally isolated, and it's a myth to say they're not exposed to crime and problems of this sort," Meyers said.

Today, the Old Order Amish in the Lancaster area are less isolated than ever. As their numbers have increased and available land has decreased, they have shifted away from farming and turned to craft-making and factory jobs that often put them in contact with the public daily. They live among non-Amish neighbors. On top of that, as many as 20,000 tourists a day stream through Pennsylvania Dutch Country.

As a result, the Amish are not immune from social problems. In 1998, in what led to the biggest previous media onslaught in Pennsylvania's Amish community, two young Amish men were arrested for dealing cocaine, supplied by a motorcycle gang known as the Pagans, to their fellow Amish.

"This is the most traumatic incident," said Meyers, who is speaking at a conference in Indiana this week on Amish youth and alcohol abuse. "But it isn't the first."

Still, given the public perception of Amish life as isolated and idyllic, the outside world is shocked when something happens to shake up that view.

"To much of the dominant culture, they represent an ideal past, a mythical past, a time when the community was strong and you knew your neighbors and everybody supported each other," Meyers said. "There's almost a romanticizing of the Amish culture, and people go there to sort of get in touch with that romantic past."

There have been other Amish murders, and even an Amish murderer, said Bontrager. But because those incidents are so rare - and so contradictory to Amish culture - large media turnouts aren't unusual.

"They're not surprised by it," Bontrager said of the Amish. "They're just wishing they wouldn't have to put up with it."

Some suspect that their emphasis on privacy only heightens outsiders' interest.

"They don't want attention brought to themselves," said Stephen E. Scott, assistant director of Elizabethtown College's Young Center and author of several books about the Amish. "But that, ironically, is what draws everybody's attention to them."

'Got to cope with it' Amos Esh, living a few miles down the road, had avoided the attention and was focused on his chore - storing the feed corn he had harvested that morning at his immaculately landscaped farm outside Strasburg.

A leaky conveyor belt carried it up into the rafters of his barn, and through the hole a shower of kernels fell upon his smiling 5-year-old son, the oldest of his four children. He will start his education next year, like his father, in a one-room Amish schoolhouse much like the one where the shootings occurred.

"It makes you worry," Esh, 29, said, scooping up a shovel full of corn.

Esh agreed to talk to a reporter as long as it didn't interfere with work. He also politely tolerated a photographer's presence as long as photographs were taken from behind. He answered questions put to him, usually briefly, sometimes with just a simple shrug.

Esh knows the fathers of two of the victims. He has nothing negative to say about the killer, whom he knew as a milk truck driver he would wave to on the highway; he has nothing negative to say about the news media that have invaded, either.

That, too, will pass, and life will go back to normal, he said. Meanwhile, work goes on.

A few miles away, in the center of Nickel Mines, three Amish boys sat on their bicycles and watched news crews scurrying around the main intersection.

TV reporters primped before their on-air appearances, taking out curlers and putting on make-up. Photographers broke out their telephoto lenses so they could take pictures of the Amish from afar.

"Usually, there's not much traffic around here," said Mahlon Lapp, 15. "You just got to cope with it, I guess. All this action seems weird here."

Nearby, two Amish girls, cousins, stood timidly off to the side. They wanted to walk down the street to the school, and eventually asked a state trooper whether they could. He told them no, but spent 15 minutes talking with them and reassuring them that life would get back to normal.

As they talked, photographers lined up behind them and snapped away. The trooper ended up letting them walk down the road a short distance, so they could circle back and avoid the media.

"It has just been overwhelming to see the sensitivity on the part of local fire and police officials," said Bontrager. "You don't always get the cream of the crop out here, but I've been just amazed at the sensitivity the legal people have been showing the Amish."

Amish experts said the same couldn't be said of the news media, whose continued presence some saw as offensive.

Goshen College's Meyers said the Amish are opposed to having their pictures taken on several grounds. "They sometimes cite the biblical injunction not to make graven images," he said. "But in addition to that, they are very concerned about any individual standing out and being a center of attention. The community comes first, and any public acknowledgement of an individual violates that sense.

"Lots of non-Amish people aren't aware of their position and simply take pictures without permission," he added. "An Amish person is not going to go up and take your camera away, or probably even say anything. They are humble and quiet, and simply endure something they don't like."

Indeed, the mission of the news media runs directly counter to the customs of the Amish, and the mixing of the two led to five days of news crews trying to capture on camera people who were doing their best to politely avoid that, five days of trying to depict the grief of people who aren't big on displaying emotion - are averse, for that matter, to publicly displaying anything, including themselves.

Much like the horse-drawn black buggies and the fast-moving automobiles that share the highways here, the Amish and the media awkwardly co-existed for much of the week, alternately frustrating and perplexing each other.

The closest the Amish came to complaining about the media presence was in a statement from the Fisher family, which saw one daughter, Marian, 13, killed in the schoolhouse, and another, Barbara, injured.

"The media frenzy with the amount of outside people and reporters was not appreciated," the statement read. "How much of this type of hype has something to do with triggering a similar incident in the future?"

By Wednesday, the homes of victims were all guarded by law enforcement officials, some who had come in voluntarily from other towns, to help keep the families from being bothered.

Other non-Amish assumed a protective stance as well: neighbors who helped chase news crews away from Amish schoolchildren; Gov. Edward G. Rendell, who ordered that the skies above the funerals be kept clear of helicopters; a group of bikers who arrived to ward off the planned, but later canceled, protest of the funerals by a fringe Christian group.

The Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., had threatened to picket the Amish funerals, saying that the deaths were a consequence of the Amish practicing a false religion.

The group, which has tried to picket funerals of Americans killed in Iraq, agreed not to protest the Amish funerals when Mike Gallagher, a nationally syndicated talk-radio host, offered them 55 minutes of airtime on his program.

Persevering culture The Amish have been in Pennsylvania for close to 300 years, and, while last week's violence was unprecedented, their culture has been subjected to outside pressures for far longer than that.

And as has always been the case, Amish experts agreed, the culture will persevere.

The Amish trace their history to the Anabaptist movement in Europe, some members of which migrated to America in the 1700s and 1800s to avoid persecution for their belief that baptism shouldn't take place until adulthood. They live in more than 200 communities in 25 states, with most in Ohio. The Lancaster area is the country's second-largest Amish community.

Despite compromises, harassment and hardship, they have maintained, with a few nods to technology, most of their traditions and values, which stress the importance of humility and placing community first, and frown on pride, showy clothing, cosmetics and jewelry.

Under their guidelines for daily living, known as the Ordnung, Old Order Amish are forbidden to own automobiles or use electricity from public utility lines. They don't have televisions, radios or computers. They cannot attend high school or college, join the military or initiate a divorce. They can use telephones but can't have one in their home.

They accept some new technology and reject far more - careful that they won't be swallowed up by it. While outdoor communal telephones have been mostly accepted, for example, the verdict is still out on cell phones. At the same time, they staunchly avoid buttons in favors of hooks and eyes to secure their clothing.

Traditionally, they are educated in one- or two-room Amish schools that run through the eighth grade. A push to require they attend high school was fought off in 1972 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a Wisconsin case that it was within their rights as a religious group to not have high schools.

Currently, they are trying to find a way around post-9/11 federal regulations that require all states to issue photo IDs.

As with most threats to their culture, the Amish aren't active on their own behalf, relying instead on outside groups such as Bontrager's to represent their interests, and otherwise letting their faith carry them through, as Amish experts predict they will in the case of the killings.

"The children in dominant culture see images on TV and in movies. These children probably haven't had that exposure, and so the trauma is heightened for them a bit," said Goshen's Meyers. "But my hunch is they will get through it and there won't be a whole lot of change."

"Their faith will carry them through this, maybe better than it would for a lot of the rest of us. It's a very supportive community," said Brad Igou, who, as president of the Amish Experience, makes his living educating the public about Amish culture. He stepped back from that role after the killings. "I'm not doing interviews. This is a different kind of situation, and I want to keep a respectful distance," he said.

Bontrager said that while memories will linger, and attitudes may be subtly reshaped, he expects little change in the day-to-day life of the Amish.

"They're asking the same questions all parents ask - are we doing the appropriate things to protect our children? They might think a little more carefully about where they locate schools and how isolated they are. I suppose it's crossing somebody's mind, 'Should we give our teachers cell phones?'

"This all seems more shocking because of the kind of people it happened to," he added, "but it draws attention to vulnerabilities that all of us face."

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun