Apprehending church burners Fear of copycats: Intolerance breeds such heinous crimes by individuals or groups.

June 11, 1996

IT'S FRIGHTENING to dismiss the possibility of a conspiracy in the burning of 30 mostly rural African-American churches in the past 18 months. If these acts of evil have been hatched by individuals, it means you can't simply point an accusing finger at one or two racist organizations. American society must instead take a collective look at itself in the mirror to find the culprits. In doing so, it must ask whether the contentious environment that spawned racial violence in the South 30 years ago has been reborn.

The quickest way to an answer is by finding and arresting those responsible. Only by learning the identities of these criminals can we determine their motives. Twelve people have already been arrested over the past year and charged with burning black churches, but authorities have not found signs of a conspiracy. That doesn't mean the church fires are totally unrelated. They certainly appear to be the acts of individuals who may not know each other but share the same intolerant beliefs.

President Clinton has directed the Justice and Treasury departments to form a joint Church Arson Task Force that will report directly to him. Attorney General Janet Reno met with many of the pastors of the burned-out churches over the weekend and assured them that authorities will devote whatever resources are necessary to solve these cases and bring the arsonists to justice. Some of the ministers were upset because members of their own congregations have been questioned as though they were suspects. But they should take some comfort in knowing authorities apparently will leave no stone unturned to find answers.

There is debate among Americans as to whether the church burnings can be tied to the generally poor state of race relations as evidenced by recent public opinion polls. Both civil rights leader Jesse Jackson and Deval Patrick, assistant attorney general for civil rights, have said they believe the burnings may be the result of the "atmosphere" in the nation today, an atmosphere in which conservative Republicans lash out at affirmative action and welfare programs in rhetoric that eschews sensitivity.

Commentary on public policy can't be blamed whenever some hood-wearer works up enough nerve to sneak off with a can of gas and a book of matches to torch a black church. But commentators should consider how their choice of words might spur such vile acts.

Pub Date: 6/11/96

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