It wasn't the devil that made them burn down churches

March 13, 2006|By CYNTHIA TUCKER

ATLANTA -- Here in the Deep South, the buckle of the Bible Belt, a man who sets fire to churches is believed to be Satan's personal representative. So last month, when arsonists struck five rural Alabama churches in a few hours - and four others days later - the locals assumed that evil was stalking the countryside.

Who attacks houses of worship but men distorted by hate? Who preys on small backwoods sanctuaries but the cowardly and small-minded, pumped up by their pretensions to power? Who tries to destroy a community's center, its soul?

As it turns out, those who do such things may not look like demons or spew hate like demented psychopaths. Last week, authorities announced the arrests of three upper-middle-class college students - Russell DeBusk Jr., 19, Matthew Lee Cloyd, 20, and Benjamin Nathan Moseley, 19 - young men with no apparent criminal histories.

According to investigators, the suspects had gone deer hunting in the piney woods south of Birmingham, but that pursuit, it seems, didn't offer enough pleasure. The first fires, officials say, were "a joke that got out of hand." The second set of fires, four days later, were a failed attempt to throw investigators off the scent. According to published reports, all three have confessed at least some involvement in the fires.

With the clichM-is that accompany crimes such as this, friends and acquaintances expressed shock that these young men - nice, studious, fun-loving, successful, all-American (white) boys - might be accused of such heinous acts. Two were students at Birmingham-Southern College, a small, Methodist-affiliated liberal arts college, and the other had transferred from BSC to the University of Alabama, Birmingham. They have not been described as poor students or habitual criminals or mental patients.

Nor did these crimes follow any simple script. A decade ago, a spate of arsons struck black churches across the South, bringing back ugly memories of night riders who terrorized their black neighbors in the harsh days of Jim Crow. Investigators eventually concluded that there was no grand conspiracy at work, although a few fires were attributed to suspects with racial motives. Others were attributed to drunken vandals or even church members.

But last month's fires struck black and white churches alike. While only small Baptist churches were burned, four of the five churches struck Feb. 3 had predominantly white congregations. All four of the churches burned Feb. 7 had black congregations.

The weeks to come will bring endless speculation about the suspects' childhoods, motives and relationships, all in a useless effort to make sense of these crimes. Pundits, observers and psychologists will try out theories, dig up old injuries and assign blame.

Some will decry the emptiness and ennui that so often accompany American affluence. Already, The Birmingham News has noted that some friends claim Mr. DeBusk and Mr. Moseley were "Satanists." Mr. Cloyd, according to the News, once wrote on his Web site: "Let us defy the very morals of society instilled upon us by our parents, our relatives and of course Jesus."

But it strikes me as just too easy to blame the devil for these stupid, selfish, disrespectful crimes. You don't have to have ever set foot in a church to respect the ideals that they represent. You don't have to be a Christian to understand the ugliness of desecrated sacred ground.

My sense of outrage is no doubt heightened by my own heritage - the days and, yes, the nights I spent at little piney woods Alabama churches as a child, churches with names such as Bethesda and Bethany and Lighthouse. They were more than places for Sunday morning worship. They were community anchors, keepers of ancient memories and burying grounds for the revered dead.

Reverence, however, is something the three suspects apparently never learned.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is cynthia@ajc.com.

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