Burning questions about hate crimes

cross burning2Given Jeff Jacoby’s consistent opposition to hate crime laws and legislations, it’s interesting he’s so worried about it now.

Posted by Michael at 2:32 pm on February 15, 2006

We are in a lull, right now, on coverage of the Baptist churches that are burning in Alabama. Wire services are providing most of the coverage with, as I have noted, some coverage inside the news sections of major papers such as the New York Times. I stand by my conclusion that (a) it is mighty strange that the arsonists are driving past dozens of other churches of various brands in order to torch the Baptist churches that they are choosing to torch (are the burned churches simply more secluded?) and (b) this story would be receiving much bigger play if they where all African-American churches, instead of a 50-50 mix.

This leads us to the Boston Globe column by cultural conservative Jeff Jacoby, about which several readers (formal hat tip, yet again, to Ted Olsen at the CT blog) have dropped me notes. I think it deserves to be pulled out of the comments section and looked at a bit.

It is hard to deny the logic of his first two paragraphs:

Suppose that in 2005 unknown hoodlums had firebombed 10 gay bookstores and bars in San Francisco, reducing several of them to smoking rubble. It takes no effort to imagine the alarm that would have spread through the Bay Area’s gay community or the manhunt that would have been launched to find the attackers. The blasts would have been described everywhere as ”hate crimes,” editorial pages would have thundered with condemnation, and public officials would have vowed to crack down on crimes against gays with unprecedented severity.

Suppose that vandals last month had attacked 10 Detroit-area mosques and halal restaurants, leaving behind shattered windows, wrecked furniture, and walls defaced with graffiti. The violence would be national front-page news. On blogs and talk radio, the horrifying outbreak of anti-Muslim bigotry would be Topic No. 1. Bills would be introduced in Congress to increase the penalties for violent ”hate crimes” — no one would hesitate to call them by that term — and millions of Americans would rally in solidarity with Detroit’s Islamic community.

However, the burning of 10 Baptist churches — black and white — is causing a bit of confusion, especially in the mainstream press. Some of this is based on history, which Jacoby notes is more complex than many think. Is it a hate crime when a black arsonist torches a black church? What if a black arsonist torches a white church? What if a white arsonist torches a white church?

But I think the media are doing the right thing in declining to speculate about the motives of the arsonists. They may simply be wild guys who, after a few beers, like to burn churches that are off the beaten track. Thus, it would help if the media told us more about where these churches are. Is there some kind of location pattern?

Perhaps these guys — the police say it’s two “bosom buddies” — are mad at Baptists for some personal reasons. That is where speculation has to stop, until police tell us more. These crimes do not fit the racial “hate crime” template and it is too soon to speculate about another template, as if there needs to be one.

Cover the crimes, with every detail possible. The crimes are bad enough. One of the details is that the churches are all Baptist. Thus it makes sense, as reporter Tom Gordon of the Birmingham News has done, to start talking to local Baptist officials. I would sure hope the police are digging into that angle in this story.

As for reader comments that conservatives rarely fret about “hate crimes,” let me note how Jacoby ends his column:

… (Perhaps) it is progress of a sort that, this time around, the media are keeping in check the urge to cry ”Racism!” But real progress will come only when we abandon the whole misguided notion of ”hate crimes,” which deems certain crimes more deserving of outrage and punishment not because of what the criminal did, but because of the group to which the victim belonged. The burning of a church is a hateful act regardless of the congregants’ skin color. That some people bend over backward not to say so is a disgrace.

To which I say, “Ditto.” I don’t think that a crime is worse because of what someone was thinking at the moment they committed a crime. You enforce the law to its full extent and you seek justice. I would feel the same way if some hateful bigots had torched 10 buildings connected to the Metropolitan Community Church. But do you think that story would be getting more blue-zip-code attention? Would that be a good thing?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Michael

    Since I asked the question, let me jump in.

    First, how do you know it’s not getting “blue zip-code attention”? You’ve linked stories from the NYT and the Boston Globe. It doesn’t get more “blue zip-code attention” than that. This is an allegation tossed around alot here, so maybe it would helpful if this was qualifed. What more would you like the NYT and the Boston Globe to be doing about a story in Alabama? What would be enough coverage? How do you know this alleged lack of coverage is limited to “blue zip-codes.” Is the DMN covering it? How about the Boise Idaho Statesman? How is it being covered by the Salt Lake City press? Is it being covered differently there?

    I understand the concern about hate crimes and the conservative and libertarian opposition to them. But there is also no doubt that recognizing that hate motivates crimes is symbolically important to the victimes of that hate. If this were found at be anti-Baptist motivated, some recognition of that by the judicial system could be symbolically important to the people whose churches were burnt. And, truthfully, we add sentence enhancements to whole classes of crimes. Shoot your next door neighbor, it’s one crime. Shoot a cop, it’s another. Hit a guy in the bar, it’s one crime. Hit your kid, it’s another.

  • Daniel

    I wonder if Jacoby realizes the hate crime law that the arsonists would be prosecuted under–CHURCH ARSON PREVENTION ACT OF 1996–was sponsored by Henry Hyde, Lauch Faircloth, Strom Thurmond and Orrin Hatch, among others.

    Is there no difference between burning down a house and burning down a church? Shouldn’t the law treat them differently?

  • http://ontheotherfoot.blogspot.com Joel

    I’m curious to see what the MSM does if it should turn ouut that the two suspects are gay. Is it still a hate crime if the victims are perceived as homophobic?

  • Michael

    It would be interesting to see how the story would be covered if it turned out the arsonist were gay. It would also be interesting to see how the story would covered if the arsonists were Catholic–which is equally plausible–or fellow Baptists like Fred Phelps who were angry about race mixing–which is also equally plausible.

  • Claire

    I’ve always been mystified by the “hate crime” designation myself. It seems to me that most violent crimes are motivated, to a certain extent, by hatred. Perhaps it’s not always the primary motive, but killing or raping someone certainly implies a deep level of disregard for the victim, even if the motivation isn’t racial. And just because the motivation isn’t racial doesn’t mean that hate isn’t involved.

    I’m following this story with interest, both here and in the newspapers.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    But for the most part black and white Baptist churches belong to different organizations (as those who followed coverage of the NBC scandal may recall.) That two random guys should have a grudge which encompasses both the SBC and the NBC, but not any other ecclesiastical bodies, is, shall we say, counter-intuitive?

    As Jacoby points out, the MSM have trouble getting around this because it does not fit the dominant cultural paradigm, which says “there are no anti-Christian crimes and besides They deserve it.”

  • Michael

    Is the MSM having trouble getting around the story. 427 electronic stories in three days. That doesn’t seem like the MSM having problems with a story. Even the liberal NYT, which apparantly never misses an opportunity to play the race card and be dismissive of social conservatives, has run a series of stories on the fires.

    I think it would be helpful to quantify exactly how the MSM is ignoring the story or having trouble understanding it.

  • http://www.psonnets.org/ Michael Rew

    Older and more rural churches, especially Baptist, tend to be woodframe buildings with wooden siding, in my observation…very easy to burn. (Some developed exurbs still have these old church buildings. One black and one white Baptist church have buildings like that near my home.) Newer and more suburban churches tend to be brick, stone, steel, and concrete, built with more fire-retardant materials. Even those newer churches with wooden frames inside them tend to look like they do not have easily burned material on the outside. Any building can be burned, of course, given enough time and planning. But spur-of-the-moment, drive-by arsons would target those churches built mostly out of wood.

  • tmatt

    Several comments:

    * Michael, I can Google too. You know this is getting wire coverage on inside pages. You know the coverage would be totally different with a clear victim template. Please respond to the ideas in the actual posts.

    * Will, excellent question. Actually, this is the kind of specific action that we need. In the rural South, however, a lot of the Baptist churches are simply going to be independents with no connections to anyone.

    * M. Rew, another fine question. I have seen no descriptions of the buildings themselves.

    * To several, I don’t think anyone can speculate on motive. All we can say at this point is what has happened and the big questions remain (a) why Baptist churches and (b) why drive past other churches?

  • Megan B.

    Is it wrong that the coverage would be different with a clear victim “template”? In the imagined scenarios (what if these were MCC buildings, etc.), lots of the coverage would be about that victim template, with the actual crimes serving as a jumping off point for the broader discussion (talking about homophobia in society, e.g.). Not having an understanding of the motive or even victim selection makes it… well, not less newsworthy, but less ripe for the kinds of spreads that newspapers like to do on Big Issues.

  • Michael

    You know the coverage would be totally different with a clear victim template.

    Do we? Black churches have been burning in the South for 10 years (which is why the race issue was assumed) although it hasn’t necessarily gotten widespread press attention. So a story that became clearer three days ago is somehow evidence that the blue-state MSM is ignoring the story because it doesn’t involve just black people?

    If there were a clearer victim, sure the story would be easier to cover. And, given the legacy of church burnings in the South as a symbol of racism, a black church burning in Alabama is an intriguing story.

    What I don’t buy is that because it involves white Baptists that somehow the MSM isn’t interested, which is apparantly your (and Jacoby’s) theory. There just isn’t much to support that theory, as far as I can tell.

    It also seems to me critiquing your assumptions is responding to your posts. Where is the evidence the story is being ignored? Where is the evidence that the red-state zip codes would be writing about the story differently? If you and Jacoby are correct that the MSM is ignoring this story because it is suddenly about white people, it would be nice to have something that we could judge that on beyond your assumption it would be different.

  • http://ontheotherfoot.blogspot.com Joel

    “It would also be interesting to see how the story would covered if the arsonists were Catholic—which is equally plausible—or fellow Baptists like Fred Phelps who were angry about race mixing—which is also equally plausible.”

    It would be very surprising if the arsonists were Catholic. We recognize Baptists as Christian brethren, and we don’t go in for burning anymore as a rule anyway :)

    A Phelps clone wouldn’t surprise me all that much, though. I’ll bet it will get a lot more coverage in that case than it would if the perps were gay activists.

  • Daniel

    “I’ll bet it will get a lot more coverage in that case than it would if the perps were gay activists.”

    Not in red-state zip codes, using Terry’s theory. Just as racism stories allegedly play well in blue-states, anti-gay stories would allegedly play equally well in red-states. :)

  • tmatt


    The Baptist connection is the only fact we have. I am trying to raise factual questions.

    I am saying that it does not have a pre-approved MSM victim template. Thus it is not as big a story. This is hate-crime logic and I have, of course, already said that this worries me.

  • http://ontheotherfoot.blogspot.com Joel

    Daniel, most media coverage is distributed through cities in blue regions. I work for a small-town newspaper in a decidedly red zip code, but our outside news comes almost entirely from the AP, which I can assure you would give more linage to a racially motivated crime than to a pro-gay-motivated one. Outside of the immediate area where these things are happening, most of the country will get its news the same way: filtered through a blue lens.

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  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    “Is it a hate crime when a black arsonist torches a black church? What if a black arsonist torches a white church? What if a white arsonist torches a white church?”

    Well… when Colin Ferguson took a gun onto the LIRR and started shooting white commuters, I did not see any labeling of it as “hate crime”. Rather, the popular wisdom was that “race had nothing to do with it”, despite his record of ranting about “racist Caucasians”. The focus was on the “need” for more “gun control” laws. (The weapon did it!)Does anyone doubt that if a white man abruptly started shooting black commuters, we would be told that race had everything to do with?

    For that matter, when a (probably white) coven was shot up in Florida (by probably white shooters), I did not see anyone outside the neo-pagan circuit class it as hatecrime. And the wire services took another opportunity to display that they don’t get religion, by writing about an invocation of a probably nonexistent “war god”.

    “This guy killed someone, and you want to spend two more days of trial arguiabout what he was thinking when he did it?” — spoken by the judge from Hell in BRAINSTORM

  • Patrick

    I seem to recall that the Black Church burnings headlined during the Clinton years, were in fact, NOT all black. In fact, the majority of the church burnings throughout the South were NOT Black churches.

    The Clinton Administration was trying to spin it as White-on-Black Hate Crime, but a closer look didn’t prove the point.

    Seems the MSM then lost interest and the issue faded from the front pages.

    My point being, that the MSM didn’t necessarily create the misunderstanding, but rather were only interested in the political ramifications. When it ceased being a “sexy” political story, interest quickly waned.

    Seems the MSM will champion causes when their favorite victims or perps are featured. Reverse the roles and it becomes passe’.

    The MSM is a dead horse. Time to dismount and walk home…I have pretty much given up on reporters getting the facts straight or “reporting” the news, instead of telling me what I should think or care about. The ideological chasm is widening exponentially to the point where there is no mainstream, we’ve been Balkanized…