Memorializing 9/11

What Do The Amish Know?

October 2, 2006 — West Nickel Mines School, Amish Bart Township of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

The gunman took hostages and eventually shot ten girls (aged 6–13), killing five, before committing suicide in the schoolhouse.

The Amish crime scene brought up so many ideas: monuments, tragedy, memory, honor, integrity, imagination, piety, heartfulness, civilization, closure.

After the terrible crime that took their children, it took ten days for the Amish to make a decision. First they buried their dead, they expressed a sense of forgiveness to the family of the perpetrator, they showed the world what piety in the face of disaster looks like, what it means to be connected, really connected, to a way of life with a heart and a spiritual center.

They constructed by hand that little one room schoolhouse where their children learned and where their five little girls were killed, but ten days after what was the greatest tragedy to ever happen to their community, they tore that building down with a bulldozer. They paid a demolition crew to do it. They built it lovingly by hand and they tore it down by demolition crew. All similarity to the world as we know it ends there.

The Amish, I imagine, did not engage in a lengthy discussion of what to do to memorialize their murdered children. There will be no plaques there, no monuments. “They do not want to make it a tourist attraction,” said a 27-year-old brother of two of the boys the killer released from the schoolhouse before the shooting.

The Amish people even planted the empty space where the building stood, its footprint, with grass seeds so there would be nothing, no visible sign left of that schoolhouse. Soon the footprint of that building will be gone too.

I want you to think about that for a minute. I want you to enter the mind of a member of that community. Be an Amish father, mother, sister, brother, be someone in that community for the ten minutes it takes you to read this article. Be someone who feels deeply about humility and not attracting attention to yourself, feel like someone who has to grieve and then find a way to get on with life, feel like someone for a few minutes who is not shaken from your fundamental belief in the sanctity of life, all life, in practicing forgiveness, in living your life with purity and integrity. Be someone who wants to be left alone by the world to live the way your fathers and mothers lived. Feel like someone who has no polemic to make about another life style. Be someone who just wants the freedom to live the way you know. Be that kind of person for a few minutes.

Then be a person in the middle of deciding what to build, what to sell, what to reclaim, what to monumentalize at the site of the twin towers of the World Trade Center, this continuing symbol now of our shame and our inability as a culture to rise to an authentic expression of sadness for itself. Be confused and mixed up by the mercantile pull of the real estate, be confused by the clash of personalities who have the right idea in conflict with other right ideas. Feel unconnected to what you need to do to honor three thousand dead in a giant graveyard where the bones are still appearing in adjacent manholes, a graveyard that cannot afford to erase its own footprint. Be that person for a while. Consider your own impoverishment.

Now step back and tell me how proud you are to be a twenty first century urbanite trying to paste your world back together with spit and chewing gum but no sense of center. Nothing could be further from your imagination than any sense of closure. Be stuck in the continuing argument over what is right for you for me for you for me – how to feel, what shape to carve your feelings into.

Now tell me – just how proud are you to be you? How strange do those Amish people seem to you now? Tell me — please. Tell me something that makes sense.

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