Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Clash of civilizations: the modern world comes to the Amish

The headlines that announced the killings of five young girls in an Amish school ("Amish School Shootings") seemed more than oxymorons. It seemed as though matter was colliding with antimatter in a meeting of opposites that shouldn't have been able to even exist in the same dimension. The killings appeared--for the first moment at least--quite literally, impossible. But in retrospect, why should they be?

When I was a child, a mass murder in a school--any school--seemed just as incomprehensible. But recent decades have erased that perception, and now schools are relatively commonplace settings for shootouts, so much so that security measures are also commonplace.

But in Amish country? Among the most peaceloving and pacifist people in the US, perhaps the world?

The gunman was not Amish; that was somehow a relief to hear. But it seems his life until the last few months gave no hint of what was to come: a pleasant family man, a good father and husband, who had nevertheless secretly been building up a stockpile of armaments and ammunition, waiting and planning carefully for this day.

The human heart can be a dark, unknown, and unknowable place, the human mind likewise. I would not be surprised if an autopsy of the killer were to reveal some organic lesion such as a brain tumor in a vital area connected with judgment and aggression. Or perhaps that's just what I want to believe, because it would appear to provide a neat explanation when in fact there can be no neat explanations for such an outrage.

The killer selected his victims carefully. All were female children, the most vulnerable-seeming of the already vulnerable. And why the Amish? They were nearby. But perhaps there was more. If part of the gunman's aim was to shock as well as kill, to commit an act especially outrageous in its targeting of those ordinarily most removed from violence, he certainly succeeded.

But the same thing that made the choice of victims so shocking makes them especially logical, because those who are particularly defenseless make the best victims of all. The Amish are pacifists and are committed to nonviolence; they don't believe in having guns, and there was no security at the school.

Crime was not a total stranger to the Amish, even before this particular event:

Crime among the Amish is rare, but not unheard of. Almost always, it is an outsider who takes advantage of a Amish hospitality, naïve by modern standards, to steal and even murder.

Amish schools are similar to many country schools of old:

School doors are commonly unlocked during the school day...The schools themselves are one-room affairs with outdoor bathrooms, and have many windows to let in the sunlight since there is no electricity. There is usually just one teacher - most often a young, single, Amish woman - who sometimes has a helper..There are no guards.

The dedication of the Amish to nonviolence and pacifism is long and deep. The original Amish emigrees to this country were motivated, among other things, by their refusal to serve in the military of their native Switzerland. Another anti-military detail is their refusal to this day to wear buttons, associated in their eyes with military uniforms:

[The Amish's] pacifism and social conscience cause some of them to be drawn to left-of-center politics, while their generally conservative outlook causes others to favor the right wing. They are nonresistant and rarely defend themselves physically or even in court; in wartime, they take conscientious objector status; their own folk-history contains tales of heroic nonresistance.

Heroice nonresistance is wonderful, but it has its limitations against a crazed gunman. I want to make one thing very clear, however: by discussing the pacifism of the Amish, I am not suggesting for a moment that their nonviolence caused this attack. And security precautions might not have prevented it, either. But as a sometimes student of the phenomenon of pacifism (see this), I've puzzled over the dilemmas it presents.

I don't know much about the deepest philosophical underpinnings of Amish thought, but my hunch is that this incident will not cause them to change their ways. Nor should it. Nonviolence is at the heart of the belief system of these strong people, and their society will absorb this blow.

The existence of a pacifistic culture is only possible, however, under two conditions: if all societies were pacifist, or if the pacifists live under the umbrella of another society that does have a police force and army and other protections against violent predators and attacks.

Those protections are far from perfect, of course. And the very society that is not pacifist--and that therefore needs a police force--is the same society that is generating the violence from which we (and the Amish) need protection.

But until the day the lion lies down with the lamb, an event I don't see on the horizon--or any horizon that involves human beings--how do we best protect ourselves? And what is the price of such protection, in the psychological and spiritual sense?

These are questions the Amish may be facing today, or perhaps tomorrow. They are questions they've faced before, no doubt, when they made the decision to be pacifists and to shun much of modern life. The latter was probably thought to be protective, and for quite a while it was.

The Amish not only do not believe in violence, they do not believe in anger or recrimination, not even now:

"It's just not the way we think. There is no sense in getting angry," said Henry Fisher, 62, a retired farmer...He also said he did not expect additional security such as locks on schools because this was a "freak accident..."

A 25-year-old Amish man who declined to give his name said he lost his 13-year-old niece in the shooting and another niece aged 11 was in stable condition in a Philadelphia hospital.

He expressed resignation rather than anger. "I think it was going to happen. God has his hand in it," he said....

There's a limit to how much any of us can protect ourselves, or our children. The Amish have an especially restrictive code about this, and are highly unlikely to compromise a stable way of life because of this "freak accident."

And the rest of us continue to make our own individual decisions about how much worry is too much, and what measures to take to keep ourselves as safe as possible without making it an obsession. Buy a gun? Learn karate? Carry mace? Move to the country? Barricade your kids in the house? Let them ride the subway? Security alarms? What sort of lock is best?

We make our own decisions knowing that ultimate safety is impossible. And the Amish make theirs, knowing the same. The answers are different, the dilemma universal.

Powered by Blogger