Side by Side
Thursday, October 5, 2006
PARADISE, Pa., Oct. 4
Morning always had a predictable sound here, a comforting refrain -- the lowing of cows in the dairy barns, the laughter of children hurrying down country lanes, the peal of school bells in the distance.
For the Amish who live in this rolling patch of Lancaster County, the quiet itself was a form of worship, obedience to the biblical command they point to in Romans 12:2. "Be not conformed to this world," the Scripture reads.
And then, on Monday, the sounds of morning suddenly changed.
Glass shattered, guns fired, sirens wailed and wailed.
By the time Charles C. Roberts IV had finished his rampage in the one-room Amish schoolhouse on White Oak Road, five little girls were dead or dying and another five were critically wounded. And two very different worlds collided in ways one couldn't imagine and the other was helpless to prevent.
Now sorrow has become their common ground.
"Actually, I feel closer to English people than I did before," says a 39-year-old Amish farmer on White Oak Road, wheeling home for lunch on a small bicycle. He doesn't want his name used, "for humility's sake." His non-Amish ("English") neighbors had always been friendly, willing to haul things in their trucks for him or such. After the schoolhouse massacre, though, "the English" began dropping by just to talk, to express sympathy even though the farmer's family was not directly affected.
He felt a surge of gratitude when he saw one of those neighbors angrily chase a television crew away when they approached a cluster of Amish children walking home. The determination to protect Amish privacy in the wake of tragedy was fierce all around, it seemed. Police obligingly cordoned off driveways of those not wishing to be disturbed.
The outside world could still effectively be shut out. "We don't read newspapers or have televisions," the farmer explains. "I understand there are video games where you actually shoot people," he says tentatively. "Is that true? If such things do exist, then I fear we're going to see a lot more of this."
But blame and bitterness are nowhere evident in the careful words or uncomfortably public life of the Amish. No hatred is expressed toward the English.
"You had no control over his actions whatsoever," says Sam Fisher, who manages the auction house where Roberts routinely parked his milk truck at shift's end each morning. "This was a sick man. It's not your fault."