Unite in outrage over church fires

This Just In...

June 14, 1996|By DAN RODRICKS

There might be no grand conspiracy behind the burnings of black churches -- no small group of angry white men plotting each arson -- but, as I heard an African-American woman say in Baltimore yesterday, "It's a conspiracy of the heart." The Southern arsonists might not know each other, they might live in different states -- they might only be teen-agers copying each other -- but they are united in their racism.

The rest of us should unite in outrage.

It would be good, for instance, if some of our esteemed Southern politicians rose up and joined the president in deploring the attacks -- instead of criticizing him for playing politics with them. Once it gets off Disney's back for the company's so-called "anti-family" employment policies, the Southern Baptist Convention might want to shift its attention to the fires. When they have exhausted their condemnations of the Christopher Hitchens film about Mother Teresa, Catholic protesters might want to take a little time to decry the burnings. And others might briefly interrupt their urgent considerations of abortion and gay rights to say a few words about what's happening to black communities in the rural South.

To me, these church fires are as bad as the Oklahoma City bombing -- maybe not in terms of lives lost but certainly in spirits broken, and what they say about our country. It's like watching a thousand crosses burn.

Memory on ice

I remember a day, after his movie debut in "Dirty Dancing," when Alvin Myerovich showed us how to waltz on ice skates. He was 82 at the time, elfin, big-bearded and as graceful at executing the manners of a true gentleman as anyone I have known. He was a good teacher, too. There he was, in the middle of the rink at Northwest, skating slow perfect circles around us, extending his small hands to his various partners, waltzing across the blue lines. He had played the charming pickpocket in "Dirty Dancing" (and, a few years later, the Jewish immigrant grandfather in "Avalon"), but my lasting memory of Alvin Myerovich must be the one from the ice rink -- a little man with a big smile, full of life, doing the Dutch Waltz with a nice-looking woman one-fourth his age. Rest in peace.

Humane, just, not popular

As for the proposed release of convicted killer Charles Hopkins: The man was judged criminally insane 20 years ago, after his bloody shooting spree at the temporary City Hall on South Calvert Street. He killed one city councilman and wounded another, and wounded a mayoral aide and a police officer. He inflicted terrible pain on an entire city. He was 34 at the time.

Hopkins has been in either Clifton T. Perkins Hospital or a halfway house ever since. Psychiatrists said nine years ago that he posed no threat to society. They are saying it again.

Why shouldn't he be released? Based on principles of justice and medicine, given the fine distinctions between criminality and mental illness, our system for handling people who commit crimes is designed to allow for the possibility of recovery and return. In our system, someone found to be criminally insane is sent to the middle world between prison and hospital. Society gets protection and the patient-prisoner gets therapy. In time, his mental health might improve. And in still more time, he might become a candidate for greater freedom. (About 400 people found criminally insane are now under various types of conditional release in Maryland, and many of you probably didn't know that until the Hopkins case raised the question.)

We leave judgments about the when and where of release to experts who presumably know men such as Charles Hopkins better than we do. It's a humane, just and rational system -- the best we've come up with so far -- that allows for the possibility that an "insane" person can recover and again walk the free streets.

But it's not a popular system, as we learn each time the likes of Charles Hopkins appears on the front page.

When "killer" and "release" appear in the same sentence, many Americans automatically assume that "the system" has failed. A great shout-down of the entire college of forensic psychiatry takes place.

In the face of such public and political outcry at the mere mention of his name, it's little wonder Charles Hopkins, now 54 years old, would shrink from the possibility of actually being granted a conditional release. He did just that in 1987. He withdrew his own petition for increased freedom. Who would be surprised if he did it again?

Stronger than anger

One other thing about the Hopkins case. I thought Attorney General Joe Curran -- whose father, then the grand old man of the Baltimore City Council, died of a heart attack in the aftermath of the shooting -- made a wholly remarkable comment about the case last week: "I've resolved a long time ago that my father's life meant a heck of a lot more to me than any anger I feel toward Hopkins."

Address correspondence to This Just In, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, Md. 21278. Contact Dan Rodricks with news and comment at 332-6166.

Pub Date: 6/14/96

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