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the nickel mines schoolhouse tragedy
a local viewpoint
by lisa r

October 2nd started out like any other day in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. It was a beautiful fall day, and I was on a mission to one of the outlet centers near my apartment before settling in at my computer to work. As I sat in the right-turn lane at the intersection of PA 896 and the Lincoln Highway, a Pennsylvania state police car came screaming up on my left, sirens blaring and lights flashing. I lost sight of him as he entered the intersection and turned my attention to the newly green signal for my lane. After all, cop cars in pursuit mode around here are a common occurrence everywhere but Hwy. 283.

I didn't think anything else about it until I got out of my car in the parking lot and heard more sirens. I looked toward the highway and saw another cruiser followed closely by a police pickup pulling the S.W.A.T. trailer. More police cruisers sped by in short order. The incident at the stoplight took on new meaning, as I realized that something serious had happened reasonably close by. I figured someone was barricaded in a house somewhere--that had happened last year along Lincoln Highway, not far from that very outlet center I was currently patronizing. Little did I know...

Look up the term "bucolic" in the dictionary and the definition is Lancaster County. This a relatively safe place to live. Neighborhoods are interspersed with churches, schools, and small family farms. Cars share the road with horse-drawn carriages and farm equipement, old-fashioned scooters, and Amish children and adults on rollerblades. Store parking lots all have a hitching post, and some even supply sheds to protect the horses from the weather while their owners shop. It is not the sort of place you expect evil to rear its ugly head--this is an area loaded with churches and pious folk who take their faith very seriously. Then again, perhaps that is precisely why it happened--man's nature often conflicts with religious teachings and strong faith in God.

As I went about my quest for new sweatpants, more sirens screamed down the highway and a state police helicopter hovered overhead. An unscheduled detour into my favorite shoe store netted a new (and much-needed) handbag...and the horrible news: a man had barricaded himself, all right--in an Amish schoolhouse. Even worse, he'd shot an unknown number of students. The clerk who imparted this information was near tears. Knowing that it was only a matter of time before it became breaking news on all the cable news outlets, I hurried to complete my shopping so I could get home. I could just imagine that my phone would soon be ringing off the hook with concerned friends and relatives on the other end.

The Rockvale Outlet Center is about 10 or 15 minutes away from Nickel Mines, and is a popular location for the Amish of that area to shop. There were several Amish women with their children shopping during my final stop. I could not help but wonder if they were going to return home to news that one or more of their children were involved. My heart ached for them, and I dreaded having anyone else in the store ask me if I knew what was going on--I didn't want to discuss it in front of these women so innocently going about the daily task of taking care of their families. I made my purchase as quickly as possible and headed home.

The local television station and the cable channels pre-empted their regular programming to follow the story. As the day went on, each news conference brought to light more and more horror. Local television and radio personalities and the state police spokesman broke down in tears as they reported the news. The city went to sleep that night with a dark cloud of sadness hanging over it.

Tuesday brought more bad news. Additional details of the gunman's intentions were provided. Two more girls had died. And more nastiness was brewing. Even as innocent families were beginning to plan funerals to bury young children (one family buried two daughters), Fred Phelps' merry band of Westboro Baptist Church misfits was planning to turn unspeakable grief into a publicity circus, claiming it was their right to protest at these funerals. Why? Because the Pennsylvania governor supported legislation to limit protest at military funerals. In addition, Phelps' daughter claimed that the Amish "deserved" to have their grief so rudely exploited, that their faith in God was false and their determination to retain their way of life selfish.

Thanks to a radio talk show host Lancaster was spared their noxious presence. The WBC unfortunately gained an hour of national airtime to spew their hatred, but potential catastrophe was avoided. The English community (anyone not Amish or Mennonite is termed "English" by the Amish) was solidly determined to protect our Amish neighbors. Judging from the emails being read on the radio, the WBC protesters would probably have been met en masse by the entire English population of the county. The "believers" at WBC have it all wrong--the Amish are firmly grounded in the most important tenet of Christianity, that of forgiveness. While Phelps' daughter was spewing her twisted rhetoric to every reporter she could contact, the families of the gunman's victims were embracing his widow and children and insisting that fund be set up to help them at a local bank.

That's true unselfishness.

A number of funds have been set up in the region to assist the victims' families as well as the gunman's. The Amish do not believe in health insurance, and the bills will be astronomical for the girls still in the hospital. If you wish to contribute, please email me and I will be happy to provide a list of the funds.


a steel magnolia temporarily misplaced in that foreign land above the mason-dixon line, with a big heart, busy mind, and opinions too numerous to mention here.

more about lisa r


alex b
10.8.06 @ 6:53a

Wow. News of the killing has elicited a lot of similar frightened, horrified, and sobering reactions out here in NY. I can only imagine that actually living in Lancaster County adds an intimate element to this tragedy.

lisa r
10.8.06 @ 12:18p

It left everyone here in shock. There are those people who see the Amish as hypocritical, because they adopt some technology such as weed whackers and chainsaws, and eschew others. The accept rides in cars, hire taxis, and take the bus--yet the only time they actually drive is during rumspringa.

Rumspringa is a period in their late teens and early twenties where they are allowed to explore the outside world and make a decision whether to remain Amish or renounce it and become part of the outside world. Renouncing it, however, comes at a cost--they are often shunned by the Amish community, but some end up working with the Amish in other ways.

If they choose to remain Amish,then upon marriage they are accepted into the Amish church. They are very family- and community-oriented, and very giving of their abilities and skills. When I was a dairy consultant, I encounted an English dairyman whose barn had burned. He had to wait on the insurance company to settle, but as soon as they did the Amish community descended on his farm and had a barn-raising for him. While he was waiting for the insurance settlement, they cared for his cows on with their herds.

Without the Amish, Lancaster County would be just another rural county in Pennsylvania. They bring in tourists by the droves, and are amazingly tolerant of the continued attention their differences brings. The tourism has had the affect of introducing people all over the world to their craftsmanship.

Many farmers have turned to woodworking and carpentry to supplement or replace their dairy incomes, as the dairy industry (like all agricultural industiees) is cyclic in terms of the cost of doing business versus the actual income. Many of the gazebos and garden sheds and playscapes that dot the landscape elsewhere came from here, as does a lot of oak furniture. The women create and sell beautiful quilts.

Usually the only hazards they face from us is the danger of sharing the road with our cars and trucks, or the occasional barn-burning spree. This was something completely unimaginable.

Just once I'd like to post a comment without finding an error afterwards. :(


lisa r
10.8.06 @ 12:46p

Story update

To further underscore the complete and utter idiocy of Phelps' daughter's statements: The gunman was buried yesterday. About half of the mourners were Amish. If that's not forgiveness, then I don't know what is.

In contrast, while other news outlet are reporting the above fact as a major headline, the local NBC affiliate has relegated the story to their "National and Other News" column. It is not featured in their more prominent news sections at the top of the site. We English are not as forgiving as quickly, apparently. There's a lesson to be learned from this.

alex b
10.8.06 @ 1:24p

Wow, Lisa. Again, I can only imagine how intense it must be so close to these events as they happen.

While I've heard some critical comments, most of what I've read or heard about the Amish are positive and echo your sentiments: they're kind, hard-working, and very devoted to family and community. Watching them handle the magnitude of this killing with dignity is amazing.

For Phelps's daughter to say that the Amish deserve to have their grief exploited is tasteless. No one deserves to go through tragedy and have it dragged out.

lisa r
10.8.06 @ 1:39p

No one deserves to go through tragedy and have it dragged out.

No, they don't--be they Amish or English. And yet our society seems to thrive on getting every juicy detail of someone else's misfortune. I think many members of the national media that descended on us seemed completely unable to grasp that the Amish deserved to have the normal decorum extended to them that the locals always have. Over the past week I've seen countless closeup pictures of their faces plastered all over various news outlets.

One of the tenets of their belief is that it is sinful to have an image made of them--so much so that their dolls do not have faces on them. They do not decorate their houses with family portraits, and do not own cameras. But the media demands to have a face to put with the story--I was in the grocery store last night and saw the latest edition of People, with a picture of two or three young Amish girls perched on a fence, faces clearly visible. I had this nearly uncontrollable urge to rip the magazines from the rack and stomp on them--it was such an intrusive shot. Local custom is to photograph from the back or from a great distance in order to honor their adherence to their personal beliefs. The paparazzi from the national and international media (for they, too, deserve that appellation) seem to believe that if they're at a distance and using a telofoto lens that they haven't done anything wrong.

I was watching some raw footage on WGAL's website of Friday's funeral procession for the last little girl to be buried (so far, at least--one child is in grave condition still). One news photographer was so close to the road that buggies were having to swerve so that the horses wouldn't step on him. I found myself wishing that at least one horse had shied at the camera and stepped on him. A highly uncharitable response on my part, but then I can't imagine trampling on someone's customs in order to make a dime or two.


alex b
10.8.06 @ 7:18p

Unfortunately, there is a sect of society who seem to get off on drama. Personally, I think people like Phelps' daughter have the overall grace of a cockroach and make comments to not only create unnecessary noise but to hear themselves pontificate. Ya-hoo.

The photo issue is a tricky one for me. Given what you've said, I want the Amish to be left in peace. I want nosy, intrusive photographers to back off. Yet because I am curious, I want to see faces of the people who are affected by the schoolhouse killings. I can understand that the Amish wouldn't commission an Annie Leibovitz portrait, but is it truly disgraceful for their picture to be taken?

lisa r
10.8.06 @ 9:48p

They see it as a graven image, and thus sinful.

I admit I came rushing home to find out the details, and figure out where it happened, but I found myself watching the coverage thinking the exact same thing I always think when something like this occurs--I want to tell the journalists to tell me what's happening, show me as much as I need to know, but don't intrude on the privacy of grief. It just seemed all the more distasteful this time given the fact that this quiet group of folk do nothing to intrude on our world but work to co-exist with it, and in return are forced to put up with our nosiness as we intrude on their lives once again, and under such terrible circumstances.

alex b
10.9.06 @ 2:52a

I can understand that since they eschew photos, they would never have any taken of themselves, but surely it wouldn't be a sin against God if one appeared in the press on an occasion such as this. It would be terrible if such an instance were considered sin, for in that case, they are innocent.

I wonder if all of the different Amish groups feel the same about pictures. I suppose it would depend on different groups' leanings, and how much of the modern world a sect has chosen to accept.

tracey kelley
10.9.06 @ 11:19a

This is such a sad, sad situation. I've tried not to watch much about it, simply because it's so traumatic.

robert melos
10.13.06 @ 7:58a

I'm amazed by the way the Amish handled this tragedy. I could never forgive, let alone move on so easily. I envy the way they are moving on so quickly.

lisa r
10.13.06 @ 8:08a


The schoolhouse was razed in the wee hours of the morning yesterday. It will be replaced by grass and become part of a pasture. Very sensible, I think. I can't imagine the emotional difficulty of going in and cleaning the building, or attending school there afterwards. Also, English gawkers had turned it into a sight-seeing stop.

A new schoolhouse will be built somewhere nearby. Meanwhile, they are conducting school in a garage on one of the nearby farms.

sandra thompson
10.13.06 @ 8:17a

The next time I start ranting about how organized religion is the greatest evil in the world I'll have to remember to put in a disclaimer about the Amish. They even have very small carbon footprints, which probably makes them better environmentalists than I am. People who milk their cows by hand surely must occupy the moral high ground in this confused century. I find it doubly poignant that they've already destroyed the building in which this atrocity occurred, and will build another school somewhere else.

tracey kelley
10.13.06 @ 9:47a

I admired them to a certain degree before this tragedy. The committment they make to the land, their families and religion is practically unheard of in "the modern world."

The order is by no means perfect, for their shunning practice is pretty absolute, almost like Scientology. But still, it would be a much better world if more people could support one another and forgive like they have demonstrated.

lisa r
10.16.06 @ 4:02p

The Amish community lost a lot of their innocence on that day. As proof I offer this: I was driving back from the credit union this afternoon, and passed an Amish schoolhouse. What once was an open schoolyard bounded only by a post-and-rail fence on three sides is now enclosed by an brand-spanking new 8-foot chainlink fence with a gate that can be locked.

And yet, these generous people have announced their intentions to share money raised on the victims' families behalf with the gunman's family.

stacy smith
10.17.06 @ 10:45a

I don't mean to sound like a heartless bitch, but the Armish are not all that inncocent to begin with.

I've lost count of how many stories there have been about them selling cocaine and other drugs as a way to "raise money" for whatever.

They couldn't think of other ways to raise funds? They had to resort to drug trafficking?

Regardless of what the money was being raised for, it's still illegal even if a person doesn't own a gas guzzling SUV.


lisa r
10.17.06 @ 6:39p

I've lived in Lancaster for almost 5 years, now, and I have yet to see any news stories about the Amish trafficking in drugs.

robert melos
10.17.06 @ 11:15p

I googled Amish drug traffickers, but only found one story in 1999 about half way down the page, and it was young Amish men giving the impression they were not fully vested in the Amish way of life.

The fact of drug trafficking is, it doesn't draw bounds because of a religious affiliation or race, or sexual orientation, or age. Anyone can be a drug trafficker, and a drug user. While alcohol and cigarettes are not officially thought of as drugs, both are just as addictive.

The Amish have gotten a lot of positive press because of the actions of a few who are practicing a forgiving life style. Granted they are amazing, but they also forgiving the family of the man who slaughtered their children. His family is as much innocent victims of his actions as are the families of the dead girls. They are offering forgiveness where none is warranted. To say they forgive his wife and children is silly. He was soley responsible for his actions. Now he is someone I would not forgive, even if he is dead. That is a level of forgiveness of which I am incapable.

Maybe some of the Amish can forgive, but I wonder if all the parents are forgiving of the man who killed thier children?

My point is, no matter what their religious belief, they are still people who feel hurt and pain and sadness. Just because they shun much of modern technology doesn't make them that much different from the rest of the world.


lisa r
10.18.06 @ 8:31a

The parents of the children who were killed were the first people to invite Roberts' wife into their homes after the tragedy, and some of their relatives visited her at her house. The extending of forgiveness to her and the children is their way of saying "we don't hold this against you--we know you had nothing to do with it". They have also forgiven him. You have to remember, they don't think like we do.

Consider this--despite the fact that a separate fund was set up for donations to his family (at their behest), they are insisting on sharing what comes into the victims' funds as well. Would we "English" be so quick to make that request in the same situation? It's food for thought.

The Amish aren't perfect. They are a patriarchal society that believes women should be subject to their husbands. They do not tolerate bad behavior from their children, and use them as child labor on the farms in excess of what is permitted under child labor laws. Many children have been killed in farm accidents--silo gas (methane) poisoning, equipment crushings, etc.

On the other hand, they're the only society which seems capable of maintaining some of the tenets of communism (but they are not communists) in the world--they dress alike, they do not attempt to outdo each other, and their leadership isn't any better off than the rest of the community. Ironic, considering that they are suspicious of government, and many of their rules regarding dress stem from oppression by soldiers and militaristic governments hundreds of years ago.

I personally couldn't live like that--although it would be nice to have a farm. I don't believe that because I'm female I should be a second-class citizen. I like my creature comforts. And most of all, I wouldn't be able to do the job I do because I would not have been allowed to seek an education beyond 8th grade. But I find it very hard not to admire an entire community of people who live up to the tenet that "Faith is something you do." Watching them the past few weeks, especially in light of other things that are happening around the world in the name of religion, has shown that at least they know what faith is really all about.

robert melos
10.19.06 @ 11:14p

Lisa, I do agree with you and am amazed by the Amish for their ability to forgive, and their ability to live as they do. While I've stated I couldn't be as forgiving, or live like them, I do admire them for their for walking the walk as well as talking the talk. I don't know if I could live in a world completely populated by Amish or people who think like that, no matter what the religious affiliation, but they are part of the diversity that makes the world great and without them we would be missing out on something.

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