On Monday October 2, 2006 in pastoral Lancaster County Pennsylvania, a local milk truck driver entered a one room school house and within minutes turned it into a slaughterhouse. Explanations for that horrific event are beginning to appear in the media as people ask the simple question, ‘Why?’ While we yearn for the answer, it is important to recall what we learned from a tragedy of much greater scale that happened five years ago.
In the first days after September 11, 2001 the mass media withheld blame as Americans absorbed the worst attack in the continental United States since the Civil War. The hijackers of the planes had made no demands nor had al-Qaeda’s leadership immediately accepted responsibility for the attack. As late as January 2, 2002 no less an authority as South African President Nelson Mandela questioned whether al-Qaeda was to blame.
As the aftershocks of the event rippled through the national landscape, explanations for the attack that killed thousands of men, women and children slowly blossomed. Some blamed the attack on America’s ‘aggression against Islam,’ forgetting that America had backed the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union in the 1980s, and entered the Balkan War on the side of the Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Others blamed ‘American Imperialism’, ignoring the fact that imperialism requires an empire which, Japan, South Korea and Western Europe would bristle at being considered part of. One commentator even blamed the attack on America’s refusal to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, an odd statement considering the amount of pollution released into the atmosphere by the destruction of four fuel-laden jets, two skyscrapers, and three thousand human beings.
There are two common threads to these explanations. The first is that they reflect the commentator’s bias or select viewpoint. For example, the global warming explanation for 9-11 was proposed by an environmental activist supporting action against climate change. The attacks became a kind of Rorschach Test in which one saw the motive she or he wanted to see. Such attempts have everything to do with the mindset of the commentator and nothing whatsoever to do with the true motives of the attackers.
The second is that each explanation dehumanizes the perpetrators by turning them into animals, acting only in reaction to an outside stimulus and completely denying them the human quality of ‘free-will’. However, we know that the terrorists had the free-will to call off their mission by walking away, or by contacting authorities. Instead they exercised their free-will by choosing to kill as many people as they possibly could.
We see a similar process at work with the Amish school massacre. In nearby Philadelphia, a city in the midst of a wave of murders, gun control advocates have seized upon the shootings to support their agenda. A recent editorial cartoon showed members of the National Rifle Association (NRA) carrying Amish children on a platter to a sacrificial altar. Another non-Amish Lancaster resident blamed the crime in part on ‘the absurdly easy availability of guns,’ ignoring the fact that guns were part of Lancaster County’s culture for centuries, long before the truck driver set foot into the schoolhouse.
Even the killers themselves provide little insight into their motives. Charles Carl Roberts IV claimed in a suicide note to have been tormented by memories of molesting two of his relatives twenty years ago, events that both deny. He also blamed God for the death of his newborn daughter.
Nothing explains how Roberts connected these incidents with his actions. According to his suicide note and his relatives, he had nothing against the Amish and appears to have selected the venue for his outburst at random – or more likely because he knew he would be more successful in an unsecured Amish schoolhouse than at a well-patrolled inner city school. Still, we are left without answers. How many survivors of abuse do what he has done? How many parents have seen their own children buried before them yet not systematically executed children as revenge against God?
Members of a radical Baptist church see God’s hand in the slaughter, saying that the girls were killed ‘in punishment for Gov. Ed Rendell’s blasphemous sins.’ The governor’s crime? Backing a law that would ban protests at funerals for gays and fallen soldiers which the group views as God’s retribution for American laws protecting homosexuals. The radical group has made a name for itself by protesting at funerals carrying signs that say ‘God Bless IED’s’ and ‘Thank God for Dead Soldiers.’
In a sense these are all attempts by minds to make sense of the nonsensical. By providing motive to an attack, we feel better. We can take comfort in people having been killed for a reason, that the attack was some kind of message which we now must heed.
This reasoning can be extended to any event: a car accident (the teens were driving too fast) a homicide (the victim should never have dated her killer) or tragedy (the astronauts on the shuttle Columbia knew the risks).
This rationalizing is our attempt at gaining control of the situation. However it is a false sense of control. We can put locks on school doors and increase airport security, but we cannot stop all acts of evil intent.
We also must learn that for some acts there simply cannot be any explanations or excuses. There can be no justification for gunning down children just as there is none that can justify slamming airliners into buildings. Excuses should never exempt acts, nor should they ever do so simply to allow us to feel pain. The children of Lancaster County and the 3000 who died on September 11, 2001 deserve more from us than a quick end to our grief.