Saturday, October 07, 2006

Sometimes I Want To Be Amish

Last Monday a gunman walked into an Amish schoolhouse, lined the girls up along the blackboard, and started shooting. Charles Roberts killed five people and critically wounded five others before eating a bullet himself. Why did he do it? Had these girls threatened or harmed him somehow? No. Had some other Amish girls caused him fear or anguish? No. In fact, nobody had done anything to him. In suicide notes he left, Roberts claims one of the reasons for his attack were his twenty-year-old memories of him molesting other little girls. Not them harming him, but him causing harm. Amazing.

I identify with the Amish people. You might wonder what a suburban atheist can possibly have in common with members of a sequestered religious community. The answer, unfortunately, is “not much.” Just a fondness for simplicity and an unbending pacifism. The Amish have separated themselves from mainstream society in order to avoid people like Charles Roberts, and to avoid producing people like him. I understand the urge to just walk away, to want a wall between me and everything else. And I almost did the same thing the Amish did.

In the late nineties I had two possible life paths in mind. The first was more conventional: Continue with college, get my degree, settle down to an average life where I tried to carve out enough time and space to explore the ideas that I found important. The second was a little less ordinary: I’d work long enough to pay off all my debts, then vanish and live as a hermit. It looks like a joke sitting on the page now, even to me, but I was serious about it. I hadn’t felt like there was a place for me in the Navy (it’s not a good environment for pacifists, believe it or not), and saw no improvement after my discharge. I couldn’t find peace of mind, and I figured I’d be better off outside of society.

It turns out there are few places to go and live the Diogenes lifestyle. Every resource and scrap of land has an owner and a price tag. To just relinquish everything but stay in the area isn’t an ascetic retreat—it’s homelessness, vagrancy. I’d still be subject to all the things I couldn’t bear in the first place, but now without the resources to survive them.

So I researched, and I found out that people still retreat to hermitages, and there are some places where it can be done. I had a choice to make—stay or go. A life of quiet, solitary contemplation or the struggle to keep pace with the contrived busy-ness of a “normal” life.

In the end, I couldn’t sever ties with my family and friends. I didn’t want to get away from everyone—I enjoyed the company of some people. It just seemed that most everyone else—the selfish, ignorant, mean-spirited masses—dictated society’s direction, and my kind of people sat apart, disconnected from that kind of influence.

Even though I stuck it out, finished grad school and got married, part of me still has a hard time with my lifestyle. I’d like to be rid of phones and internet and satellite TV. I hate relying on a car. I own more clothes than I wear, more CDs than I listen to, and more DVDs than I watch. My own conduct violates my principles every day. And then there are other people. Flicking cigarette butts out of car windows, snarling at cashiers, grasping, backbiting, demanding. That’s why I envy the Amish. They don’t know who Paris Hilton is. Or Terrell Owens or Barry Bonds or Donald Trump or Tom Cruise. They don’t know who won American Idol (well, I don’t either, but it takes more effort for me to shut that out). They (or their ancestors) had the courage to isolate themselves in order to live they way they felt necessary.

Isolation isn’t all good, though. I’m guessing it was the remote location and lack of phones that helped Charles Roberts pick this school as his target. It was certainly because these Amish kids were strangers to him, maybe even alien to him, that Roberts was able to see them as means to his end, targets for molestation and murder rather than people. And it’s that same kind of isolation that allows me to see most Americans as stupid, greedy connivers. After all, the people I know and love are flawed, too. They watch stupid TV shows, they toss garbage out of car windows (thought not when I’m around), and they want more more more stuff. And I’m flawed, too, so who am I to judge?

After all the evidence is in, it seems I have more in common with Charles Roberts than I do the Amish he victimized. With one exception. Charles Roberts wasn’t a pacifist. The Amish are. I am. All of us are flawed, but Roberts chose to deal with his problems using weapons, and that’s what can’t be supported or explained away. He wasn’t smart enough to solve his problems with reason, so he turned to violence. He didn’t have the strength or the courage to fight with his own two hands, or against an opponent he wasn’t guaranteed of dominating. So he used guns. The ultimate crutch for stupid, weak cowards. And then he couldn’t even face the consequences of his actions and fed himself a bullet. Some believe he’ll get what he deserves now that he’s dead. The Amish are religious, but I don’t know if their God is a vengeful god. If he’d just skipped the “killing a room full of kids” part, and gone straight to the “killing himself” part, the world would be a better place. Thankfully, I don’t have that in common with Charles Roberts.

Here’s where my urge toward isolation builds again. I wouldn’t even know about the shootings if it weren’t for the news coverage, and the worst part is that this isn’t even news. Hearing about this doesn’t lend me any insight into the human condition—I already knew people could do things like this. Knowing about this doesn’t make me any safer—the killer killed himself and isn’t a danger to anyone anymore. There is no value to this information being disseminated even throughout the state of Pennsylvania, let alone the whole world. We’d all be better off if stories like these stayed confined to the people who have a stake in them. But this gives anchormen a chance to wear their somber faces and express to us their shock and dismay that someone could do something like this—for the thirty-fifth time this year. They get to show us how much they care, so we’ll watch their broadcast instead of the other channel’s identical show, so they can sell more Rogaine and Viagra, so they can rake in more cash.

This makes a perfect news item because it’s shocking, and because the Amish are entirely disconnected from the social factors that produce Charles Robertses (maybe the only Americans who can claim that), and because the victims were children. In objective fact, it doesn’t matter if the victims were six years old or 46 or 106. When confronted without warning by a gun-wielding psycho, nobody has a chance, no matter what the gun-nut libertarians would have you believe.

Once again I’m left with mixed impressions. It seems easier to just walk away from a culture that regularly produces people like Charles Roberts, and more regularly produces milder variations of him, than to remain and try applying the opposite influence. But this event makes it clear that walking away doesn’t immunize anyone from these social diseases. Maybe in the end there is no choice but to try to live right and hope for good luck.


dpwieland said...

I can't for the life of me figure out why someone would want to shoot up the Amish. Is there a more inoffensive religious sect on the planet?

BTW: I added you to my sidebar-o-links. This means we're going steady now.

Jason said...

I already had you on my sidebar (but you probably already knew that). You're the Satyricon guy. Thing is, I'm sure you know who Mithotyn is, and I'm sure Jared knows who Satyricon is, but that's the way I roll.

My question is: Slayer? Really? I haven't really liked a Slayer release since Seasons in the Abyss. How about something really goofy, like Korpiklaani or Ensiferum or Finntroll. Ha!

dpwieland said...

Emperor. Mayhem.

I am what they call "0ld sk00l"

dpwieland said...

Forgot my favroite: Dimmu Borgir

Or as they say in Denmark, Demon Burger.

Jason said...

I can't respect a black metal band until most of the members have eaten one of the members' brains.

That shows dedication.

D. Chmielewski said...

While the military is not a great place for a pacifist, it does expose you to a fantastic cross section of the population. Certainly, the people you meet (and live in close quarters with) would explain both the Amish and Charles Rogers mentalities that exist in society. Perhpas the key is to be "exposed" to this, not to live it until it drives you next to nuts. Lesson for the next life, oh wait ....Lesson for the dirt pile I guess.

Jason said...


I think it was the exposure that you're talking about that helped bring about my awareness of my own inability to harm/kill other people. I think that's the key--in this culture, everyone's a stranger. Nobody relies on anyone, and there's no reason to view others as anything other than obstacles. Another reason to envy the Amish, with their stereotypical barn raisings and such.

REally, I can more readily accept the idea of reincarnation (in a loose sense--more like molecular recycling) than I can "heaven" or "paradise" or some such. So maybe it will benefit the next life.

D. Chmielewski said...

At least your atoms will be recycled (conservation of mass you know) unless you are involved in some sort of thermonuclear event (fission or fusion would do it) then only your individual atomic matter will be recycled.

Rest assured, you may not just be pushing up daisies, you may in fact be part of one. If that aint another life, I don't know what is.

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