If terrorism has made us feel unsafe and insecure, the latest shootings in a one-room Amish school in Lancaster County, Pa., can only multiply our fears.
Anyone who has ever visited Lancaster County, as I have on many occasions, experiences it as a base of tranquility in a turbulent world. Many tourists go there because they want to experience the lost virtues of their childhoods. Many doors are unlocked. It appears someone has pushed the pause button on the History Channel.
This embrace of more innocent times is particularly noticeable among the Amish, who separate themselves from "the world" and lead mostly insulated and isolated lives. The more dedicated among them eschew electricity and ride in horse-drawn buggies, all of it designed to shun the influence of evil and outside pressures to conform to behavior and attitudes the Amish believe are harmful to themselves and to their children.
Shunning evil, though, does not mean evil will shun you. In this case, evil made a house call in the person of 32-year-old Charles Carl Roberts IV, a milk truck driver who admitted molesting young relatives of his and, according to police, "dreamed of molesting again."
Amish historian Sam Stoltzfus, told the New Era newspaper in Lancaster, "School children came home terrified. They have no concept of violence. They don't understand guns. They don't watch TV. They wanted to know why this guy did what he did."
As one who watches some, but less and less TV, I observe a growing acceptance and promotion of violence in network "entertainment" programs. The "CSI" series, which enjoys high ratings on CBS, as well as other crime shows on other networks, depicts graphic violence, blood and smashed brains. In an apparent effort to capture the necrophilia demographic, autopsies present naked bodies for the medical examiner (and the camera) to go over. In fact, murders appear to be rivaling situation comedies in the competition for our attention. One is banal, the other brutal. Local TV news is drenched in crime and blood.
Roberts did not have a profile that might have caused merchants who sold him the weapons and ammunition, or the police, to become suspicious. He had no criminal record, no documented history of mental illness and police say he methodically purchased his weapons and ammunition at local stores over a period of time, so as not to draw attention.
The 2006 school year is barely a month old and already there have been three fatal shootings, all within the last week.
The Bush administration has announced it will shortly convene a school violence summit to discuss possible federal action to help communities prevent violence and deal with its aftermath. Short of placing metal detectors and armed guards in every public and private school in the country it does not appear much can be done to guarantee the safety and security of students from sick minds that look for vulnerable schools to prey upon.
The danger now is that other unstable people will see this horror on television and think they can replicate the carnage in their towns to redress some past grievance or to give themselves a few seconds of significance or notoriety.
People who educate their children at home are likely to think they made the right decision in the face of tragedies like this one. Not even a seemingly safe Amish school can guarantee a child's protection from outside threats. Perhaps in addition to exploring ways to make schools safer, the Bush administration's summit on school violence might also recommend ways to make it easier for parents to educate their children at home. Individual states might join in by giving tax credits for home school parents, since children educated at home do not cost taxpayers money in public schools.
Any analysis has to conclude that life is uncertain and that protection against evil is always problematic. No parent knows what might happen after a child leaves home for school and no child can be protected from every possible threat. But one does not expect something like this to happen in Amish country where education is an extension of the home.