Mind Shadows

10/4/06



Home_____What’s Happening to Us?: Charles Carl Roberts & The Amish Murders

We live at a time when things seem to be falling apart. Everywhere we look, the old truths have given way to new fictions, and the last has become first. The worst are filled with a passionate intensity; the best lack all conviction. In his fine poem, "September 1, 1939" W. H. Auden sat in a bar on New York's 52nd Street. As narrator, Auden looked at the tense, desperate people around him, trying to forget the Second World War, about to unfold in Europe. Today, in October 2006, we are not like those people on bar stools, faces gazing into a mirror. We have no headlines announcing a fateful and disastrous change like that day long ago. Instead, the change is happening slowly, but for all that it is dangerous and real. In a bar today, people might toss back their drinks, afraid to look at the other faces in the glass—all of them blankly turned to their drink as they swish it between their hands before swallowing another. Something is happening in the world, in their lives They just aren't quite sure what.

On 2 October 2006 armed with shotgun and pistol, a milk truck driver named Charles Carl Roberts IV entered an Amish school room in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and killed five girls from six to thirteen years of age. He did so because he was carrying out a grudge from a past that haunted him—something he claimed to have done twenty years before. Charles Roberts committed a tragedy that scarred and seared the Amish and other township parents, and it is something they will not shake, carrying it with them to the grave. Still, it was no great historical event. Here was no World War III, no earthquake, no tsunami, no meteor smashing into Earth. Because it was not, we must be like the faces in the mirror above the bar. The tragedy is ours, not only theirs. We must not avoid looking into what we see in the mirror. We must study ourselves carefully in it so to learn what we were and what we have become.

The Amish are peaceful, deeply religious people, who do not believe in violence. They have no telephones or televisions. They do not drive cars but get about in horse and buggy. They wear nineteenth century clothes, the women often in bonnets and blue dresses, the men in straw hats for summer, and plain trousers with broad suspenders. They want nothing to do with our century, yet it has caught up with them.

Charles Roberts had nothing against the Amish. He wasn't one of them, and he found no fault in them as a people. He simply needed objects for his revenge. The girls weren't merely Amish to him. They were creatures of a world in which he was alone. They were out there; he was inside himself. A lone individual in a highly fragmented, individualistic society, the furniture of his mind had only one chair, and he sat in it. He was supreme in his own mind. Supreme in his fantasies, in his grievances. Nothing was superior to that. Nobody else counted against that.

Many explanations can be made for his actions, and one is that he was a creature of individualism taken to its present extreme. In Habits of The Heart, Robert Bellah, et al., writes of what has been lost to individualism. A respect for tradition. A sense of duty and obligations to others. A continuity with the past. A belief in pubic virtue. The book reveals how these have been surrendered to a corporate commercialism whose ads seek to mold minds into unthinking lone appetites bereft of any collective defiance against mass consumption. Corporate executives quite naturally justify the needs of a corporation—what best serves the free market economy best serves the country. Isolated individuals are not intended as results of the economy, nor is the economy solely responsible, but it does offer a legitimate way of looking at what has happened to society.

The Amish God is loving. He binds the Amish together into love, into community, into a people filled with one another.

Charles Roberts was modern man at his most desperate. To his wife, he said, "I am filled with so much hate, hate toward myself, hate toward God, and an unimaginable emptiness." There is only a quarter inch between that and what Corporate America would have a consumer society believe, as bumper stickers declare, that the one who has the most toys when he dies wins. Toys cannot serve meaning. They could not feed Roberts' unimaginable emptiness.

Oh, of course we can find the usual explanations. Here was an evil man bent on evil designs. Or he was wacko and good thing he killed himself too. Or schools need better protection. Each in its own way is plausible but only superficial. The main stream media reported what happened in Pennsylvania but never got to the serious questions because that would have taken too many sound bites and eaten into time for the next commercial. In the main stream media you never hear any explanation why public killings are on the increase. If the explanation cannot fit into a five or six sentence response, the audience may become bored, so goes the thinking. Nobody asks why is this happening now? What has made the difference? Quite simply, recurrent and widespread attacks against innocents didn't happen in the past. So what has changed?

One could say that they are copy-cat killings fostered by media that uses lurid details to attract audiences, and one copy-cat breeds another. People like Charles Roberts have a chance for the spectacular, for fifteen minutes of fame, as Andy Warhol put it. The killer is a nobody in a media society that vaunts power barons and celebrities. Like a movie star, he can go out in a blaze of glory which vanquishes his unimaginable emptiness. In a single act of violence, he has the power he lacked throughout life. Fair enough as analysis. But, apart from the role of media, what is happening in the world to cause such people?

Nobody is asking you to adopt Amish religion, nor do I recommend a public return to religion or think it possible. But think about this. The Amish believe in the collective, not the individualistic. Independent of consumer society, they don't own telephones or televisions. They don't drive cars, but get about in horse and buggy. They have security in this, a sense of peace. Their society is more important than the individual desires and whims of each member. They have a long history and sense of who they are. They live their lives together. They believe in their value to one another. They have meaning in their lives that shapes them in a manner wholly unlike the form taken by American and Western society. Their lives are entwined by a deep religious conviction. They have sustained that social fabric because they turned away from what outsiders valued. They share their joys, their hopes, their frustrations. They plan together, and in that one room Pennsylvania school house five young girls died together.

In his Bowling Alone Robert Putnam observes that the number of bowling leagues has decreased in the United States although the number of bowlers has increased. Putnam links the decline in leagues to a decline in civic consciousness—to a loss of community. He distinguishes between two kinds of capital, monetary capital and social capital. While the economy has increased, social capital is on the wane. As each year passes, people feel less connected to one another. Today, each person, each family, sits inside its suburban box in the living room watching television, while people in the box next door do the same. They don't speak to one another and instead relate to phosphate images on the back of a cathode ray tube, broadcast from thousands of miles away. They laugh at their favorite sit-com character; they identify with the handsome or pretty news anchor; and in a few hours they flick the remote to turn off the TV, then they go to bed. They are electronically connected to the media power elite who use focus groups to decide what will be broadcast to them while they may not even know the first or last name of their neighbors in the house next door.

Charles Roberts, had he lived, should have faced a life sentence or execution for his murders. That is beside the point. The point is to understand what has happened to society to create the Charles Roberts within it. I have raised the question but have only made some comparisons between the Amish and our mass consumer society. I have not answered it, and cannot do so alone. The question must be a public one resolved by the people. It is a question well worth profound public debate. We must know what is happening to us and nobody will help us. The media will see the next tragedy as a reason to attract viewers, but will not answer why. Experts will be interviewed who will give expert answers. Better security, etc. But that is a band aid, not a diagnosis.

The issue will not be raised on Capitol Hill or in the White House. Certainly, corporate board rooms do not find it in their best interests. We have no town hall meetings anymore. Don't expect a reply from the media. It is up to us.

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