By T.W. Burger

(Parts of this column appeared in the Oct. 3, 2006 edition of The Patriot—News.)

 

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You do this job long enough and the biggest occupational hazard is calluses.

They can form on the soul, on the outer surface of the heart, where it rubs up against the world.

Calluses protect us from the sheer meanness of living, but dull our sensitivity to it. You try to keep the calluses from getting too thick, or you’re pretty much useless as a writer bearing witness.

The children wore white in their new pine boxes.

Five of them. Naomi Rose Ebersole, 7;  Anna Mae Stoltzfus, 12; Marian Fisher, 13; Mary Liz Miller, 8; Lina Miller, 7. All Amish. The girls went to the tiny West Nickel Mines Amish School in Lancaster County, Pa.

You know what happened.

Last Monday, 32-year-old Charles Carl Roberts IV, heavily armed, barricaded himself in the one-room school and shot 10 girls execution-style. Five have died.

And then Charles Carl Roberts IV laid the barrel of his 9mm pistol to his forehead and shot himself dead.

Amish Country is not the typical landscape of horror.

It is rolling green hills dotted with cattle and bearded men running farm machines powered by mules or draft horses or oxen.

It is picture-postcard school-kids in straw hats or bonnets walking to one-room Amish school houses on the Grandma Moses terrain.

I wanted to write something new and fresh about the tragedy. It stained me deep in the core, down deep where I did not think anything could reach me after more than 20 years covering the nasty things we do to one another.

I don’t know that I can write anything new. Horror and the deaths of the innocent are an ancient evil, and forever fresh. They need no help from me.

Still, I was there, hours after the shootings, witness to anguish in the eyes of Amish children passing by in their somber carriages, and to an older sorrow in the eyes of their parents.

Witness, also, to throngs of reporters like me, and to TV satellite trucks like a bloom of giant fungi in a parking lot near the school, and photographers, working the angles, working the light and the faces, working the deer-in-the-headlights stare of a community awash in the unimaginable.

And witness to forgiveness. A forgiveness and inner certitude that somehow made me, if I dare say it, angry.

One night shortly after the shootings, an old Amish man walked up to a young woman reporting for one of the television stations, and said he wanted to talk. This is something the Plain People rarely do. He was the grandfather of the two Miller girls who died at the hand of Charlie Roberts.

The old man said that the family would move on from the tragedy because they believe that it was all part of God’s plan. He also said that the family had already forgiven the gunman.

“But, how can that be?” the reporter asked.

I don’t remember his exact words, but his reply was something like “because that is God’s way.”

At the first Methodist Church near the Nickel Mines School, the sign outside said “OPEN FOR PRAYER.” The sound of TV news helicopters echoed wildly among the ancient stones in the graveyard. A handful of people sat inside, bent in prayer. A photographer came in and took some photos and left. One of the praying men got up and closed the door, as if to say that prayer is not a media event.

Police said Charlie Roberts’s suicide notes indicated that he was angry at life, angry at God. I have tried to imagine Roberts shooting children, tried to imagine pointing a gun at a child and pulling the trigger, and my mind shied away like a spooked horse.

When the old man spoke, I felt it first as an ache, a sense of wonder at that kind of strength. And then a bit of something like anger slinked through, hard on the heels of that ache.

I was puzzled, but I think I know now that my anger grew out of my own envy, and I suspect I am not alone. We get a lot of entertainment from the Amish; amusement at their quaint habits and, to our ears, odd ways with the language. We smile at the way they eschew modern conveniences. We feel superior at the same time we envy them their simpler lives. No cell phones, text mails, instant messages.

But, you see, those are all superficial things. We never think about the strength and character that lies beneath the tidy farms, the somberly immaculate buggies, and the firm belief that all things have a purpose, even if we cannot decipher them.

Who of us could find that kind of forgiveness in his heart? I wonder, does hatred arise, only to be wrestled to the ground and trussed? Or does it simply not show up? We have all seen how frightening humans in groups can be, how madness and hatred can sweep through a group and turn them into a mindless thing that only exists to hate and rend.

How can a whole group of people be exactly the opposite, grieve and mourn but not rise in hot anger demanding retribution, but, as these did, invite Charlie Roberts’s widow to the funerals of their children, and attend Charlie’s funeral themselves?

How sad is it, in the end, that it comes as such a surprise? For so long, we have gone in our slack-jawed millions to gawk at and pester the Amish and their ways. I think we would be a great deal wiser to learn from them.

© 2006 Marsh Creek Media,

Gettysburg, Pa.

“Burger to Go” is a product of me and my company, Marsh Creek Media and, as such, I am solely responsible for its content.

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