Who is burning black churches?

In the week since the massacre at the Charleston, SC Emanuel AME Church, six African-American churches across the South have burned. I spent yesterday on social media pushing that we use the language of terrorism to describe these acts. Let me explain why I think that’s important (and not a rush to judgment), but first let’s review the facts:

— June 30: Mt. Zion AME Church in Greeleyville, SC. There were lightning strikes in the area around the time of the fire. No official cause has been named as of yet.

— June 26: Greater Miracle Apostolic in Tallahassee, Florida. The fire was likely caused by a tree limb falling on power lines.

— June 26: Glover Grovery Baptist in Warrenville, South Carolina. The cause has not been determined, but investigators observed no element of criminal intent.

— June 24: Briar Creek Road Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, which houses both black and Nepalese congregations. Fire investigators ruled that fire an arson, and though they have not seen evidence that hate was a motivation for the crime, they are not ruling it out.

— June 21: College Hill Seventh-day Adventist in Knoxville, Tennessee. Investigators ruled it an arson but they say nothing so far has indicated a hate crime. ATF and other agencies said that it looked like vandalism.

— June 21: God’s Power Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia. Investigators believe the blaze might be arson. ATF is investigating but no ruling has been made. The church had recently been broken into and air conditioners and sound systems stolen. (Source: CNN)

So at least three out of these six churches were deliberately torched. Now that doesn’t mean white supremacists committed those arsons. Thieves or vandals with no underlying ideology could wind up being responsible. Prudence would dictate that we not use the language of terrorism regarding these incidents until all the facts come in.

But the point of terrorism is to instill fear in people and leaving people unsure of the source of the violence is an effective part of that scheme. Some of these same buildings have been torched before. It’s hard to accept a natural cause this time when it was arson last time. In the historical context of the South, there persists a lack of credibility of those doing the investigating and policing, who as often as not were part of the same good old boys club as the arsonists. Excuses like lightning strikes have been used to cover over terrorist activity before. Many of those crimes went un-investigated as authorities were sympathetic to the actions and aims of the perpetrators. As Dylann Roof and the recent attention to violence against African-Americans has shown us, people still think this way, and sometimes those people are still the ones we need to – but aren’t sure we can – trust to bring the terrorists to justice.

And then, of course, there is the KKK. They have hung around and kept going, far outliving any reasonable estimate of their lifespan or cultural relevance. How can people still think this way? How can they express openly views so out of step with everything around them? Well, because they aren’t as out of step as we want to think they are, not as far removed from mainstream culture as they should be. And let’s be clear, they haven’t moved. Their ideological position hasn’t shifted in 150 years or more (that’s not a compliment). More importantly, rational people haven’t moved far enough away from them to reveal them as the pariahs they should be. The Klan reflects the latent racism in our culture. If they didn’t they would be worse than marginalized, they would do more than offend us. They would cause us to speak up and do something. The KKK is holding a rally in Charleston, SC in a few weeks, and for the most part we’ll ignore it. It may get a little news coverage (probably more because of recent events), but not as much as it should. We should react to a Klan rally the same way we would react to an ISIS parade in a U.S. city, but we won’t.

Remember, Osama bin Laden didn’t kill anyone on Sept. 11, 2001. He filled young, impressionable minds full of hateful nonsense and sent them to act out those ideas. And yet, it was always bin Laden who we looked to as the one most responsible. Dylann Roof pulled the trigger inside the Emanuel AME Church, but others filled his head full of those ideas. They bear as much responsibility as he does. They are terrorists. When they get together and share their ideas, those are active terror cells operating here in the U.S. That is the language we need to use because that describes for us the moral nature of what they are about and how we should feel about and respond to what they say and do.

Not every plane crash is an act of terrorism. Not even every hijacking has to be an act of terrorism. But it has become our default reaction because we feel like we need to be vigilant against those forms of terrorism (even though there’s very little we can do about it). I think it should be the same (and more so, because there is a lot we can do) with regard to black churches burning. We know this has been an historic form of terrorism in the South. We know authorities have not always been forthright about causes or diligent in investigating. There is a long history of terrorism against our black brothers and sisters. It’s time we called it what it is and treated it as such.