10/18/2006 01:33 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Why the Amish Freak Us Out, and Not Vice Versa

When a deranged killer slaughtered some Amish schoolchildren recently, the Amish razed the school to prevent it becoming a tourist attraction. This might lead us to the erroneous conclusion that they fear being seduced by the pleasures of our world. But in fact no child is allowed to join the adult community without first being exposed to those pleasures.

Americans have always had a rather horrified fascination with the Amish, who live in tight, mostly rural, communities, wear old-fashioned clothes, travel in horse-drawn buggies, and reject about 75% of modern culture. How could they live as they do, without cars and other modern conveniences and entertainments? And how could they reject our wonderful way of life once exposed to it?

For the Amish have a tradition, called "rumspringa". When children of either sex reach the age of 16 the Amish encourage them to leave the community and sample the pleasures of the modern world. Only after young Amish men and women have experienced the outside culture are they seen as capable of making a genuine, informed choice to join the community. The young Amish--at an age when moderation is at an all-time low--try everything modern culture has to offer. They ride in cars, try on sexy clothes, explore every gadget, go dancing, get drunk, are sexually promiscuous, and use every drug they can get their hands on.

Yet 90% go back. Give up all the pleasures of our world for the single one of belonging to a tightly-knit community.

We in America have a special problem with community. The earliest colonists, and every new wave of immigrants, have had one thing in common: a willingness to give up the rewards of friendship and the ties of community to achieve a higher standard of living. As a people we tend to be rootless. We move to the sun, we move to the city, we move where our work takes us. We don't find it hard to "pull up stakes"--the term itself is testimony to our lack of commitment to a location--emotionally we live in tents

Much of our success as a nation comes from this willingness to accept a certain superficiality in our community life--a minimal emotional commitment to friendship and family ties. It has given us a flexibility, a freedom to explore possibilities and pursue new ideas that no other nation has been able to match.

But everything has a price. Our bookstores are filled with how-to books dealing what other nations take for granted. And although we are trained from birth by the media to a kind of narcissism, the hunger for community cannot be entirely suppressed. It's in our genes. Our survival as a species depended on it. It's this hunger that makes Americans so susceptible to cults, and so prone to waxing sentimental over Norman Rockwell paintings and Disney fantasies of 19th Century small towns.

Clearly we cannot have both. And those born to the freedoms of our way of life are rarely inclined to give them up, and even more rarely succeed when they attempt communal life. But one wonders how many of the ills we suffer from today result from our having short-changed a need built into the DNA of our species.