When five Amish schoolgirls were murdered at the West Nickel Mines School in October 2006, the picture that emerged of their isolated community showed us everything except how they really felt.
A woman walked through the valley, toward the funerals. She wore black. The field was harvested and empty, and she moved across it slow and straight, like an earthbound raven.
In the pale landscape, only she moved. She and a piece of caution tape, caught in the wind. Yellow. A color so familiar by now that it worked against its nature. Instead of warning the curious, it drew them in, promising that Yes, it happened here. Flickering in the wind. Right here.
Jack from Boston grinned. He flashed a little camera in his pocket. "How close can we get?" he asked. Jack from Boston was new.
We stood in a little patch of gravel, looking at our feet. I said, "I think it’s up to you."
Jack had arrived moments ago, and introduced himself as a freelance writer and sociologist. From Boston. He had a theory. We stood together another moment, then without talking he trotted toward the yellow tape, crunching in the gravel.
A few days ago, television satellite trucks, scores of them, had populated this gravel patch at an intersection of two quiet roads outside Paradise. The television people had moved on, but a few stragglers remained in the area. A few journalists, many tourists of a peculiar sort, and one sociologist.
Jack hovered near the caution tape, snapped a picture, moved a little closer, and thought better of it. He hurried back to the gravel.
"How did it go?"
"Good," he said. He seemed a little out of breath. "It was good."
He pulled a book from the trunk of his car. "My book," he said. It was called The Genocidal Mind, by Jack from Boston. He flipped it open to a section about chaos theory. "I’m here looking for this," he said.
Chaos theory proposes order within apparent disorder. "The crime here seems random," Jack said, "but there are patterns within it. Things to find. Things to learn."
Behind Jack, the gravel announced the arrival of an enormous and ancient American-made car, so long and heavy that it heaved on the gravel like a ship on waves. It stopped a few feet away, idling. A young man sat in the passenger seat and looked at us. He had the full beard and smooth upper lip of a married Amish man. He gave a soft smile, like a teacher to pupils. Then he lifted an enormous camera, an antique Polaroid dug from some forgotten trunk in the back of a barn. It held a massive flash unit.
The car lurched and pulled away, leaving a wake of gravel. An Amish drive-by. Jack grinned, still holding his book about patterns in chaos.
The woman in black had moved on from the valley, and joined the rest of her funeral party. Others came behind her, with bowed heads and a measured gait. In the background, the Amish schoolhouse stood perfect and serene. So familiar by now that it worked against its nature: Instead of imparting knowledge, it offered only mystery.
THERE’S AN OLD AMISH saying about death. When the old and infirm pass away, survivors take comfort because they’ve passed "through the strait gate," into the New Jerusalem.
There’s a second Amish saying about death. Not for the old or infirm, but for the martyrs: They pressed with such force through the strait gate, they left their flesh on the posts.
Death holds no secret from the Anabaptist people, and poses no questions. Their entire faith springs from physical destruction, beginning with persecution and slaughter for re-baptizing former members of the Roman Church. They assembled their stories in a book called The Martyrs Mirror, first published in 1660. The Amish still read it in their homes, alongside the Bible and the hymnbook. The full title is The Bloody Theater or Martyrs Mirror of the Defenseless Christians Who Baptized Only Upon Confession of Faith, and Who Suffered and Died for the Testimony of Jesus, their Saviour, From the Time of Christ to the year A.D. 1660.
They were "defenseless" because they clung to the Anabaptist belief of nonresistance to violence. Not just pacifism, but nonresistance altogether. Pacifism stands aside, cool and objective, and watches the world dash itself to pieces. Nonresistance means something more. It adds a layer of duty, and compassion.
An Anabaptist man named Dirk Willems, for instance, remains one of their most revered martyrs. He’s the closest thing to an Amish hero. In the winter of 1569, Spanish inquisitors captured him outside a small Dutch village. They locked him in a palace used as a makeshift prison, and he lowered himself from a window with a rope of rags. He fled over the frozen landscape, pursued by palace guards, and when he came to a pond, he slid across a thin layer of ice. Then behind him he heard a splash and the cry of a palace guard, who had fallen through. Dirk Willems turned back and rescued the guard, who then arrested him and took him back to the palace.
According to The Martyrs Mirror, a strong east wind blew on the day Dirk Willems died, so that "the kindled fire was much driven away from the upper part of his body, as he stood at the stake; in consequence of which this good man suffered a lingering death."
The residents of the nearby Dutch village marveled, horrified. How on earth could anyone turn back to the aid of his persecutor?
CHARLIE ROBERTS DROVE A MILK TRUCK.
That’s about it. People have said since then that they didn’t notice anything dangerous about him in those final days. Didn’t notice anything too odd, or strange. But then, they never really noticed him at all.
There’s a certain distance between people, in this part of Lancaster County. The Amish and non-Amish live near each other, but not intertwined. So there’s a formality, a clarity about one’s role in society. You can see it in the space between houses, how they’re not scattered across the countryside-that’s not community-but they’re not built close, either.
I understood this slowly, after becoming friends with an Amish man named Sam Fisher. He owns the Nickel Mines auction house, which sits just down the road from Charlie Roberts’s house, and within sight of the Amish school. Sam is a warm, engaging man with an unexpected and wicked sense of humor; he never hesitated to make a joke about the nearby town of Intercourse. But I visited him many times at the auction house, where during the week he works alone, and each time he rose to greet me with, "Hello. Can I help you?"
"Hi Sam," I’d say. "It’s just me."
But Sam knew his role, and mine. He was the auctioneer. I was the potential customer. And each meeting felt like the first, until conversation relaxed him, the roles eased, and he remembered this funny story or that dirty one.
I asked him one day if he knew Charlie Roberts from down the road.
"Oh, no," he said.
The milk-truck driver’s role is this: In the middle of the night he enters a farm and pulls his truck near a barn or outbuilding. Amish farmers, having milked their cows during the day, keep the milk in tanks. The milk-truck driver empties them, records the amount in each, then drives away again. Sometimes at dawn he might see the farmer, or his children, standing against the new sun. A hand to shade the eyes, and a hand to say hello.
In a land where people stand some distance apart, Charlie Roberts slipped easily through the spaces between. He looked unremarkable. Medium height and build. Hair the color of the hay jutting from a thousand horses’ mouths. His interests seemed simple. One day this autumn, for instance, he walked into the Valley Hardware store and bought two plain packages of plastic zip ties.
A few days later, on the morning of October 2nd, he walked his children to the school bus. He wore a baseball cap. As his children climbed aboard the bus, Roberts’s wife, Marie, called out, "Hey kids, come back here, Dad wants to give you a hug."
The children stepped back down, and Roberts hugged and kissed them. He said, "Remember, Daddy loves you."
He had a plan by then, and weapons, and implements of evil. And no one saw it coming. They only knew Charlie Roberts drove a milk truck.
JOHN BACHMAN MADE A little steeple with his forefingers and pressed them to his lips, trying to remember Charlie Roberts. Something. Anything.
"He and Marie called," Bachman said. "They needed help."
Bachman sat in a high-backed chair in the parlor of Bachman Funeral Home, an ancient brick home in the village of Strasburg. His family were Anabaptist immigrants who landed in Lancaster County long ago, and they have buried their neighbors for generations.
He remembered something. "It was 1997," he said. The Robertses had lost their baby, who lived just 20 minutes after her birth. They needed help arranging her burial.
Did he remember Charlie Roberts at all?
"No, not really," he said finally. "It was a hard time for them. They just seemed like a confused couple."
Somewhere along the way, the Bachman family drifted from the Anabaptist sect, but that mattered little. They were people of Lancaster. There are some people who don’t fit in, John Bachman said. A family could live in the place for a lifetime and never be of it, so to speak.
Bachman fell silent. In the bookcase behind his chair, he still keeps an old and worn copy of The Martyrs Mirror.
THE AMISH OWN NO CHURCH buildings. They meet in each other’s homes, moving from pasture to pasture, never allowing pride to take root in the form of pillars, or facades, or elaborate crucifixes. So in Amish culture, the closest thing to a holy place, an altar, is the schoolhouse.
The building is almost supernatural in its austerity: architecture made perfect through practicality. One room. A door to enter and leave, windows for light. Wooden desks for sitting, and books. Within, children learn lessons up to an eighth-grade level, with little emphasis on science. Then they take jobs on the family farm, or in the community.
To outsiders, the Amish way seems backward: no electricity, the horse and buggy, plain clothing, no ornamentation and little formal education. But all their decisions revolve around community. A thing’s effect on the community-to bring it together or pull it apart-determines whether the Amish accept or reject it. They believe that if a man spends half the night watching television, then fails to milk his cows in the morning, the community at large suffers. So they reject it. But that same man, in the half-light of dawn, might milk his cows better in the glow of a gas-powered lantern. So they accept it. The needs of each individual are subsumed by the needs of the community. So the one-room schoolhouse serves as a preservation hall, where each generation hands down its values to the next. A sanctuary for community.
Charlie Roberts arrived at the schoolhouse door at mid-morning. Charlie the milk-truck driver. The man who had never caused suspicion, or even notice, and who still carried the warmth of his children’s kisses at the top of his memory. He also carried zip ties, guns, ammunition, lubricant, a stun gun, and lumber to bar the door.
He approached one captive with a pistol in his hand. The Amish hunt frequently, and many men own rifles, but handguns are unfamiliar.
Roberts held it out to her. Do you know what this is?
She searched her mind for an answer. She said, It is a horseshoe.
SAM FISHER, THE AMISH auctioneer, was helping a friend repair a building that morning. The building had a phone, which is rare but not unheard-of among the Amish, and Sam heard it ring.
He answered it, listened a moment, then called out to his friends upstairs. "You should come down here," he said.
"We’re almost finished," one called back.
"No," he said. "Come down."
Word spread that way across the entire community. A mysterious act, people said. Something horrible. Messengers ran across fields and delivered the breathless news: The milk-truck driver took over the school. He ordered the boys and teachers out, and kept the girls. He shot them.
How many? Still unclear.
Did anyone die? No one knew.
Across Lancaster County, the Amish withdrew into their community. They gathered in homes and businesses, and on the grass outside the school. They waited for some word of life or death, watching while helicopters touched down and took off again, collecting the girls like some terrible harvest machine. Television cameramen arrived and captured them in video footage that looked like still photography: people standing with hands in pockets, staring into the middle distance.
Details trickled out. Thirty-two-year-old Charlie Roberts had apparently planned to molest the 10 little Amish girls, but when police arrived he went ahead and shot them all, and then himself. Police had bashed their way into the building and found a scene of such horror that men’s lives changed just from the sight. One officer had picked up a little girl and run outside with her, hoping for medical salvation, but she died in his arms. Word came that four of the girls had died. Then five. The other five suffered wounds of varying severity. Word came.
The media flattened the earth with enormous satellite trucks. The reporters and photographers moved together from this place to that, from the school to Roberts’s house, to the restaurants and hotels, then back to the school, always together. The television crewmen started calling themselves "the Herd."
Sam Fisher arrived at his auction house to find it commandeered as a makeshift information headquarters. Officials and police made announcements at Sam’s podium like auctioneers, rattling off life and death instead of quilts and chairs. Outside, the Herd gathered on the gravel patch. In a land where night comes down like a dark blanket, generators hummed, lights crashed onto pastureland, and reporters in makeup stood with microphones, speaking into thin air.
Amish buggies typically travel on the edge of the road, and in much of Lancaster County there is so little other traffic that the roads wear in a lopsided way. But in the days after the school shooting, the little winding byways looked like rush-hour Philadelphia. Trucks and vans and police cars and others jostled for position with horse-drawn buggies.
The out-of-town reporters seemed exceedingly polite, most people agreed. But there were so many. The attention bewildered the Amish. Mail came from New York, from Germany. It came from the world, one piece from Australia simply addressed to "Amish Families USA."
People yearned for something the Amish appeared to embody, although no one seemed able to articulate it. Something about the chaos of our world intruding on their ordered world, a wicked hand reaching in to crush a pure heart. There must be some greater significance, a pattern in the chaos, as Jack the sociologist said. There must be some understanding. A lesson.
An act of such horror must surely have meaning.
JOHN BACHMAN, THE FUNERAL director, received two calls. He expected the first one, from Marie Roberts. She wanted him to help bury her husband, the milk-truck driver.
He met with her, and saw a certain look in her face. She looked hollow. "After doing this job for so many years, you just know the look," he said. "You see it a lot when someone loses a child, for instance. I can walk into a room full of people grieving for a child, and without a word I can pick out which couple are the parents. There’s just a look. Marie had that look."
Then Bachman received the second, less expected call. An Amish bishop had a request of his own. The victims’ families hoped to attend Charlie Roberts’s funeral. Bachman understood why. "They needed to forgive Marie at the first opportunity," he said. "It’s their way."
Meanwhile, the world’s thinkers searched for a larger importance to graft onto what had happened in Lancaster County. They struggled to explain the inexplicable, in the face of Charlie Roberts’s apparent mental breakdown. "The horrific school shooting in the Amish community on Oct. 2 underscored the dangers that lurk in our educational institutions across the country," someone wrote in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
A writer for U.S. News magazine took a colder, more political path. "In the horrific murder of the Amish schoolchildren in Pennsylvania, the crazed killer had an arsenal of guns and was prepared for a siege," he wrote. "However, limiting guns is a taboo subject in the White House and Congress. We certainly don’t want to offend the NRA."
And so forth.
A strange new tourism sprang up from all the coverage. Cars and minivans from around the country suddenly appeared, looking for the schoolhouse. They came from New York, Ohio, Colorado and further afield. Eventually, in the privacy of darkness, the Amish knocked down the schoolhouse and replaced it with empty soil. But for now, people came, seeking something they couldn’t quite name. So many came that police installed themselves in front of the school, where they waved people along: Keep moving, nothing to see.
A burgundy Chevrolet van pulled to the side of the road one day, and the driver stuck his head outside the window. He was Otis, who had driven from Tennessee, and he had a couple of questions. "Are you local?" he asked. "Can you tell me where the school is?"
Another middle-aged man in the passenger’s seat gave a little wave, and in the back I saw two older ladies craning their necks to see. "This is my brother," Otis explained. "My mother. My aunt."
I pointed toward the school and asked why they felt compelled to come see it. One of the ladies said, "We just want to know why." Otis fumbled for his answer. After a while, his brother dug out his wallet and flipped it open to show a Tennessee state trooper’s identification. He offered it as an explanation, and said, "I guess that tells you something right there." But after a moment he shook his head and replaced the wallet in his pocket.
The big Chevy van pulled away, and dropped down into the shallow valley. When they reached the school they slowed almost to a stop, until the policeman waved them along. They crested the next hill, pulled into someone’s driveway, and turned around for a second slow pass. Maybe these tourists, like the television reporters, the thinkers and everyone else, hoped the schoolhouse might serve its old purpose one last time.
We hoped that if we listened hard enough, we might hear a whisper: This is your lesson for today. This is who, and where, and why. You’ll stay safe, if you can only understand.
ON A COOL SATURDAY, Charlie Roberts’s friends and family gathered under a green tent in a church cemetery. Amish men and women, scores of them, stood together outside the tent. Most of them had never attended such an event, and they stood apart, as always. Then, slowly, they moved together under the tent and joined the service. They mourned a man who had persecuted them for nonresistance, by killing their children.
It was awkward at first. The Amish didn’t know where to stand, or where to cast their eyes. But then a sense of order descended on them, and they formed a silent line. John Bachman, the funeral director, recognized the dead girls’ parents because they shared Marie Roberts’s hollow-eyed expression. One by one they walked past her and reached to her, touched her, embraced her. They whispered to her.
Bachman, who has spent a lifetime under such tents, said, "I knew I was witnessing a miracle."
The Amish flabbergasted the world with their forgiveness. Their strange and unfamiliar forgiveness. How could they come out with it so soon, before they had even buried all the bodies of their children?
The Amish had no choice, in their minds. No more than old Dirk Willems had, when he turned back on that frozen pond so long ago. They are practical people, and theirs is a practical forgiveness. To outsiders, forgiveness implies a certain emotional resolution. But to the Amish it is a matter of nonresistance, and scriptural duty. Not resolution.
"We say we forgive them," an Amish woman explained to me. She was a young woman, closely related to more than one of the children shot at the school. "And we do forgive. But the emotional part carries on."
"There is no way we can live up to what the people are saying about us," Sam, the auctioneer, said. He smoked cigarettes. He wasn’t proud of it, but the strain and grief overwhelmed him, and he smoked. "We are not perfect. Some of us are bad." He thought a moment, and took a sorrowful drag on his cigarette. "I’m bad," he said.
The television news crews would soon disappear. The world’s attention span is short, and we expect life’s hardest questions to be answered on the evening news, if not sooner. We have become meaning-seekers, forever imposing pattern and significance on events we don’t immediately understand.
The Amish, in contrast, have attention spans that reach centuries into the past, and infinitely into the future. On that October morning, God reached into their schoolhouse and enacted a mystery they may never understand, in this world. This eternal view gives them a sense of acceptance that puzzles the rest of us, and draws us to them.
After the Amish delivered their forgiveness to Marie, the widow of a milk-truck driver, they left the cemetery tent. They walked back across the fields in the direct Amish way, all dressed in black, looking down and walking with deliberate steps. A flock of earthbound ravens.
There remained only what happened. An event with no meaning. An event with no more or less importance than the passing away of five little girls: Naomi, Marian, Anna Mae, Lena and Mary Liz, aged seven to 13. They pressed with such force through the strait gate, they left their flesh on the posts.
Published as “The Aftermath” in the December 2006 issue of Philadelphia magazine.