It’s LANK´-a-stir . . .

October 3, 2006

. . . and the shooter is not a “gentleman.”

I live about forty miles from Bart Township in eastern Lancaster county, Pennsylvania, the site of yesterday’s tragic shooting that has left five young girls dead and six others hospitalized, some in critical condition. The victims are all Amish children who were at work on their German lesson when Charles Carl Roberts IV, a milk truck driver who is not Amish, entered their traditional one-room schoolhouse, displayed weapons, and had the boys help him carry in more ordnance and supplies as well as materials for barricading the building. He then released the boys and the women teachers (one of whom was pregnant and others who had infant children with them).

The police were summoned and tried to establish contact, to no avail. Roberts lined the girls up against the blackboard and shot them at close range in the back of the head. He then turned the gun on himself. Two girls died at the scene, one was pronounced dead on arrival at a nearby hospital, and two more died during the night. (I would provide a link to the story, but the situation is still very fluid and links likely will become obsolete quickly.)

From the time the story broke near noon yesterday until the evening news came on, Channel 8, the NBC affiliate in Lancaster, was on the air with information and updates, preempting the entire daytime schedule of soap operas and talk shows. By evening all of the national outlets had reporters and commentators interviewing just about anybody who might have some small piece of information, or no real information at all, to offer.

I study the Amish and other Pennsylvania German sects, both “plain,” (the Amish and the Mennonites, known popularly as the “Pennsylvania Dutch”) as well as the “fancy” (people of Pennsylvania German heritage who are Lutheran or German Reformed). I can be fiercely protective of the way information and misinformation about the plain sects is disseminated. As Matt Lauer said several times this morning on the Today show, the Amish are often misunderstood. (See Amish 101 on for what appears to be an informative explanation of Amish culture.)

I can also be archly critical of the way some news people report many of the stories they’re sent to cover. Since the advent of CNN we now have a proliferation of news outlets and an overabundance of reporters with not enough actual news to report. It makes me cringe when I hear a police chief or a hospital spokesman who has had to take time away from the crisis to talk to reporters say that he has no information about or is not prepared to comment on, say, the specific injuries, only to be asked seconds later, “What are the specific injuries of the victim?”

I am happy to say that most local reporters I saw were doing well, especially when trying to explain to national figures certain aspects of Amish and Pennsylvania Dutch life. (Tucker Carlson, who’d already asked if this was some kind of one-room public school, expressed amazement when told that the youngesters were busy with their German lesson when the incident began. “Do the Pennsylvania Dutch have something to do with German?” Uh, Tucker, Amish people are trilingual — they speak the Pennsylvania Dutch dialect at home, use English to conduct business and give instruction to their schoolchildren, and learn standard German because that’s the language of their liturgy and their Bibles.)

And I realize that these reporters are speaking extemporaneously, with neither time nor materials to prepare well. But it was still disconcerting to hear a Channel 8 reporter declare that at about 10:15 “a gentleman” entered the schoolroom. We are learning that Charles Roberts was an enigma, a loving husband and father who evidently was recently driven by dark forces, something to do with a hurt inflicted long ago either by him or upon him. He was well-liked by the farmers (both Amish and “English”) from whom he collected milk, although some said he’d been acting strangely in recent weeks. He was many things to many people, but at the moment he entered that schoolroom, he was no gentleman.

This morning’s television coverage gave us Ann Curry standing in a cornfield she described as being near “LAN´-caster.” OUCH! No clearer way to show yourself as an outsider than to use that pronunciation (common for the same place name in California and elsewhere). And Meredith Viera seemed in awe of the fact that the gunman drove a milk truck — they still get their milk delivered there! (No, Meredith, he drove a tanker that collected raw milk from dairy farmers for delivery to a processing center.)

As this day has gone on we’ve seen heroic efforts by many people to manage the information and give as accurate a picture as possible. The Amish do not like to be photographed (it’s thought to promote an unwholesome pride and self-absorption), nor do they like to speak in public. Certain hospital protocols and medical procedures are problematic for the Amish and great care must be taken when suggesting them. This has led to a lot of the commentary being conveyed through the police and hospital spokesmen, and it’s hard to avoid speaking about the Amish as “them.”

I’ve just turned off the latest news conference. It’s a strange day when I find myself agreeing with and supporting Pennsylvania’s Governor Ed Rendell, whom I despise. His was among the reasonable voices reminding everyone that this is a human tragedy that could not have been averted by tougher laws but maybe by tougher love, by reaching out to a friend or family member who appears to be experiencing a dark time. It’s hard to know when one’s concern is wanted and when it’s intrusive.

The gunman’s wife, whose young children will forever be known as the children of a murderer, is calling for prayers for the Amish families who have experienced this trauma. The Amish families are calling for prayers for the gunman’s family.

It would be well, I think, if all the newspeople would pack up their stuff, maybe replace the ground their equipment has torn up, and do some reflection themselves. Or at least learn how to say the name of the county.

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