Church Fires

March 9, 2006: 12:36 am: Birmingham, Church Fires

Birmingham-Southern College is stepping out with a statement about the arrest of its students implicated in the Alabama church fires.

It’s not earth-shattering by any stretch, but when your sky is already falling you’re better off playing it safe. There are some obligatory points you have to hit in these situations. The key is to be humble, sincere, and apologetic without admitting any culpability or liability. You don’t want to over-apologize to the point of a guilty posture.

The quotes from Birmingham-Southern College President Dr. David Pollick run the gamut from sympathy

“In response to the two students having been charged with arson of nine Alabama community churches, Birmingham-Southern College has suspended each student from the college and immediately banned them from campus awaiting further action by the authorities. The students, faculty and staff of our college are at once shocked and outraged, and we share the sorrow of our neighbors whose churches represent the heart and soul of their communities.

…to blaming society

“These cruel and senseless acts of destruction have profoundly touched our college community. Where there once existed such a clear line between the harmless and playful and the harmful and cruel, we increasingly see young adults throughout our nation incapable of distinguishing between healthy and destructive conduct. Boundaries are all too often exceeded. The social use of alcohol moves easily and too frequently to dangerous irresponsibility. Innocent and healthy stages of interpersonal social encounters too frequently degrade to violent and personal acts of violation. We see symptoms of a culture of personal license so powerfully magnified in the actions of these young men.”

… to an extension of humanity and aid

“We also are deeply concerned for the families of these young men, knowing the pain they are experiencing. The entire community of Birmingham-Southern College—students, faculty, and staff—pledges to aid in the rebuilding of these lost churches through our resources and our labor. Together we’ll stand as a reminder of the strength of communities that transcend the differences of religion and place, as well as the effects of mindless cruelty.”

Campus Police Chief Randy Youngblood added the obligatory comment designed to demonstrate transparency and a commitment to justice:

“The college cooperated in every regard to the investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, and the state Fire Marshall’s Office, and we will continue to do so as needed.”

To be honest, those cop-talk bites are fairly rote and scripted. I’m fairly certain part of the “cooperation” entails saying just this much about the investigation, and no more.

Thoughts from the peanut gallery, anyone?

March 8, 2006: 3:07 pm: Birmingham, Church Fires

Fires are a staple of television news — and church fires are a symbol of outright hatred and violence. Put them together, and you have a compelling combination that draws attention from around the globe.

The ATF and FBI have arrested three college students — charged with the intentional torching of nine churches in central and west Alabama. The first five happened in rural Bibb County. The other four were scattered in other counties a few days later, in an attempt to throw a wrench in the investigative track.

In one sense, these communities can start putting these events behind them. Knowing that it was dumb college kids and not race-or-religion-based hate is a slight comfort. Unfortunately, past history tells us that public perception on the national scale will not catch up to the facts. If asked, most people outside of the state will tell you that the last round of hyped church burnings (mid ’90s) were a racial plot, when in fact most were set by members. A year from now, others will insist the Bibb County church fires were set by the Klan. (A funny thought, considering that all five of the Bibb churches were white congregations.)

The state of Alabama has a long way to go in changing perceptions, and its people are at the mercy and whim of those who are content to carry the stereotypes. Those minds won’t be changed until they are ready.

While the state’s image is the indirect “loser” in this affair, the PR staff at Birmingham-Southern College is working to avoid direct fallout. Two of the three arrested are BSC students — and that is not exactly the top-of-mind impression you want to leave. Already, the school is fielding questions about the investigation, part of which occurred on campus:

“I can confirm the FBI was on our campus last evening conducting an investigation,” school spokeswoman Linda Hallmark said today. “At this time, we know nothing more than that. We’re waiting on information and instruction from the FBI.”

UPDATE: Birmingham-Southern is going out of its way to come out of this in as positive a position as possible:

At a press conference this afternoon, Birmingham-Southern President David Pollick pledged to “aid in the rebuilding of these lost churches through our resources and our labors.”

Pollick said it was too early to determine whether the aid would be in the form of money or labor. “We’re hoping to find the best way to help.”

UPDATE 2: An analysis of the BSC official statement

The embers of perception burn long after the fires of hate go cold.