A wave of arson fires in black churches has prompted an unprecedented nationwide response that reveals a lot about this country and how far we've come since the 1960s. North and south, from the White House to the average person, Americans have been outspoken in condemning these senseless and cowardly acts of violence. Federal, state and local authorities, the fire service, the insurance industry, political, business and religious leaders, the public and private sectors have rallied together to fight back and stop the church burners.
Thus far, there is no evidence of a conspiracy by organized hate groups. But many fires are believed to be racially motivated and investigators say it's the work of individuals rather than identifiable groups. In the arrests that have been made, there is only one case in which the arsonists were linked to the Klan. In fact, the lack of any signs pointing to organized groups has made it more difficult to track the perpetrators.
While most of the fires have struck black churches in the rural south, some have occurred in urban areas and in churches that are not predominantly black. But it's obvious that a small church on a country road is the easiest target to hit in the dark of night. By the time those fires are discovered, the building is fully involved and it's too late for the fire department to save anything.
It has been determined that some fires were accidental and, in several cases, the evidence points to something other than a hate crime. Sadly, two of those accused of torching churches were young volunteer firefighters who wanted the action. Another incident was vandalism caused by a disturbed juvenile. Insurance fraud is suspected in at least one case and there are reasons to be suspicious about the motive in several others. This has been a problem for investigators, who have to be extra sensitive as they routinely question everyone who might have some knowledge, including ministers and church members. Nerves are on edge, people are angry, frightened and frustrated and arson investigators who usually work in quiet obscurity are operating in a tense and highly publicized situation.
This may be the first time arson has become a political issue and, given the nature of the crime and the nature of our time, it probably was inevitable. Even though there's no evidence of a conspiracy, there is good reason to believe that racism, the tensions and heated, controversial climate of the past few years have produced the arsonists. That, and the evidence, is why most of the cases are being investigated as probable hate crimes, including a flurry of recent fires that are suspected of being "copy cats" triggered by the intense media coverage.
Because it's so politically sensitive, only top officials at the Treasury and Justice departments do the talking at the federal level. Arson experts from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms (ATF) are working closely with state and local authorities, as they always do. It's the biggest ATF task force that has ever been assembled and, as this is written, they may be on the verge of cracking some major cases.
Rep. Curt Weldon (R-PA) announced a program sponsored by the Congressional Fire Services Institute to help defend religious institutions against arson, which includes an arson prevention packet. The International Association of Arson Investigators has offered to conduct seminars in congressional districts and the Insurance Committee for Arson Control has arranged for their local companies to conduct loss-prevention inspections of religious buildings. All of this can be obtained by calling the U.S. Capitol and asking for the member of Congress from your district. (The telephone number is 202-224-3121.)
President Clinton has visited the site of a church fire and his administration has formed the President's Partnership for Fire and Arson Prevention, headed by James Lee Witt, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Legislation is being introduced to make it a federal crime to burn a religious building and to double the prison sentence for this type of arson. All of these actions have the support and involvement of every fire service organization.
The church attacks seem like a throwback to the bad old days of the 1960s, when bombings, burnings, beatings and murder were aimed at the civil rights movement. Back then, there were places in the South where the authorities made little or no effort to solve the crimes. But a quarter century later, fire investigators and federal, state and local law enforcement agencies are fully committed to finding and convicting the arsonists. And, there has been an outpouring of public support and sympathy for the congregations that have been victimized.
The insurance industry is offering reward money for the arrest and conviction of the arsonists and that could be an incentive for people to come forward with the information. It's hard to believe that the church burners have not bragged about their deeds when they had a few beers under their belts. It's also hard to believe that local police don't have informants and some likely suspects to be questioned. As an old, street-wise detective told me many years ago: "Give me one good stool pigeon and I'll solve any crime."
Clearly, help is needed from the people who might have information. Arson prevention is important but the only sure way to stop arsonists is to arrest them, convict them and put them in jail.
Hal Bruno, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is ABC News political director and served many years as a volunteer firefighter.