By Jeff Jacoby
“There was not one desk, not one chair, in the whole schoolroom that was not splattered with either blood or glass. There were bullet holes everywhere -- everywhere.”
That description is from Janice Ballenger, a deputy coroner in Lancaster County, Pa. She was among the first to enter the West Nickel Mines Amish School after Charles Roberts murdered five girls and severely wounded five others there last week. One of the bodies she examined was that of Naomi Rose Ebersol , a 7-year-old who had been shot more than 20 times. "Kneeling next to the body and counting all the bullet holes," a shaken Ballinger said, "was the worst part."
How do civilized human beings react to such an atrocity? With horror? Anger? Hatred?
Not the Amish.
Asked by a reporter if the community was angry about the killings, one Amish grandmother, Lizzie Fisher, was adamant. “Oh, no, no, definitely not,” she said. “People don't feel that around here. We just don't.”
Confronted with such premeditated malevolence, what decent person wouldn't seethe with fury and revulsion? What parent or grandparent wouldn't regard such a massacre as not only unspeakable, but well nigh unforgivable?
The Amish wouldn't.
“I don't think there's anybody here that wants to do anything but forgive,” one Lancaster County resident was quoted as saying. “We don't need to think about judgment; we need to think about forgiveness and going on.” Many townspeople announced their forgiveness of Roberts directly to his wife and children.
To voluntarily forgive those who have hurt you is beautiful and praiseworthy. That is what Jesus did on the cross, what Christians do when they say the Lord's Prayer, what observant Jews do when they recite the bedtime Kriat Sh'ma. But to forgive those who have hurt -- who have murdered -- someone else? I cannot see how the world is made a better place by assuring someone who would do terrible things to others that he will be readily forgiven afterward, even if he shows no remorse.
There are indications that the killer in this case may have been in the grip of depression or delusion -- he left suicide notes that spoke of unrelenting grief over his infant daughter's death, and of being tormented by dreams of molesting girls. Perhaps it was madness more than evil that drove him to commit this horror, in which case forgiveness might be more understandable.
But the Amish make it clear that their reaction would be the same either way. I wish them well, but I would not want to be like them, reacting to terrible crimes with dispassion and absolution. “Let those who love the Lord hate evil,” the Psalmist writes . The murder of the Amish girls was a deeply hateful evil. There is nothing godly about pretending it wasn't.
Or, in other words, "The Amish can't really care about those kids, or else they'd be more pissed off. Why do the Amish hate America?"
Now, I, like Jeff Jacoby, admire the Amish (or, judging from that column, I probably admire them a little bit more than he does), and similarly, I recognize that I could only aspire to living like that. They devote their lives to nonviolence and forgiveness. I try to forgive, and I'm less violent than I used to be, and I'm more likely to sit home and plot elaborate and protracted revenge scenarios than I am to actually go out and engage in even the simplest. But I realize that their philosophy is an ideal.
The reason that Jeff Jacoby doesn't dig the Amish is that they reject the one thing that the country is drinking like nickel PBR right now: revenge. They don't do it. They don't even do self-defense, which may or may not be a philosophy for the rest of the world, but they certainly don't do revenge. They do do punishment, in their own nonviolent way, but they recognize a difference between punishment and revenge, and they don't do revenge.
Now more than ever, Americans love revenge. We've got our system of justice all set up, and we're going to juice it from "punishment, correction, and rehabilitation" all the way up to "you're going to rue the day you stepped over the line and you're going to wake up screaming," and it's going to be sweet! We like torture. We're holding on to the death penalty with both hands and most of our teeth. You're not just going to pay for your crime, you're going to pay for your crime, boy, and it's gonna be with skin.
Isn't that really what's going on in the Middle East right now? We were attacked by al-Qaeda on 9/11, and the country (for the most part) rallied around plans to go into Afghanistan, find the guys who did it, and take them out, one way or another. And that's justice, right? I think it is; it's no more than the police do in response for a murder.
But then Afghanistan started getting boring. Osama And Friends were really hard to find. We were hungry for justice, but our meal was still back in the kitchen. So we kept ordering drinks, ate as much bread as we could stomach, and finally got up and went next door to... Iraq.
Iraq was hot, fresh, and ready to go. We went in there with shock and awe, brushed off the distinct lack of flowers and candy, arrested some folks, destroyed some infrastructure, pulled Saddam Hussein out of a spider hole, and expected to be satisfied. But we weren't, why?
Because that wasn't justice.
Justice was next door. Justice involved finding those responsible for repeated attacks on our country and our country's interests, assets, and people, and we hadn't done that. We'd gone and torn things up in a country that, don't get me wrong, wasn't doing any good for the rest of the world. But Iraq wasn't justice. It was just being pissed off, seeing that guy who'd bugged you all through high school, and beating him down because you already had the baseball bat and you happened to be in the neighborhood. And all that does is get you really bloody and bruised with your original goal still unmet.
The Amish know that. They know that holding onto anger and hatred only makes you an angry and hateful person, particularly when the object of that anger and hatred is dead and outside the reaches of worldly justice. Forgiveness isn't about anyone but us. It doesn't mean that what the other party did was okay, and it doesn't mean that the other person isn't subject to justice; it just means that we won't let it turn us into people we don't want to be.
How does this translate to the situation in the Middle East right now? Well, we sure as hell don't want to forget what happened on 9/11. Remaining "hungry for justice" in that respect is undoubtedly a good thing. And far be it from me to call on anyone else to forgive; that's the sort of thing that happens in its own time, unique to every situation, and I certainly struggle with it myself.
But we need to remember that we're there for justice, not revenge. Obviously, we went into Iraq for the wrong reasons, but we're there now and have to stay until it's reasonably fixed (or definitively unfixable). If we're really there to fix things, our approach and our outcome will be significantly different than if we're there to show the little camel jockeys that they can't fuck with the U-S-of-A. As Iran starts trying to present itself as a potential nuclear threat (currently somewhat overshadowed by North Korea in that respect), our approach, and our outcome, will be different if our goal is to neutralize them as a threat and secure our own safety than if we're looking to teach Mahmoud Ahmadinejad not to flex nuts.
In Afghanistan (well, we're actually thinking more in Pakistan at this point), our goal could be catching Osama bin Laden, who was responsible for the 9/11 attacks in the first place. I'm just throwing out ideas here.
The Amish have a philosophy that works for them, but wouldn't necessarily translate well to the rest of the industrialized, modernized world. But that doesn't mean that we can't (or shouldn't) try to learn from them. Asking us not to defend ourselves and each other is... much. It's human nature and animal instinct. But what we can do is approach that self-defense from the perspective of utility, of doing what is necessary to keep us safe and bring things into balance without letting hatred and vengeance turn us into the same kind of people we're fighting against.