Today's topic is a little off my normal beat. Yesterday three students were arrested for setting fires at nine churches in Alabama. Two of them are students at Birmingham Southern College, and the third had been before transferring to the University of Alabama. I don't know these guys personally, but I could.
Birmingham Southern College is the opposite number to Centre College, where I teach. Both are classic small liberal arts colleges. Both are church-related, Methodist in the case of BSC, Presbyterian in Centre's circumstance. Both are part of the Associated Colleges of the South, an association of the premier liberal arts colleges of the South. I don't know these guys, but I easily could – I have students just like them.
The early accounts say that all three are pranksters and aspiring actors. They were almost certainly drunk when they set the first fires – the official condemnation by the Birmingham Southern president implies as much. An unnamed witness quoted in all the news reports, no doubt a friend of theirs, said the fires were "a joke that got out of hand."
How do we make sense of this? When the story first broke, the reaction of the press and most attentive middle-aged people was that these fires were racially motivated. Church destruction near Birmingham naturally suggests white racists, possibly in hoods, burning black churches. But the story couldn't play that way – the churches were mostly white Baptist congregations out in the country.
Now that the culprits have been caught, the story may unfold a different way: reckless rich kids with no respect for faith arrogantly destroy working-class people's treasures. They were caught through the records of the new SUV tires of one of the three, a doctor's kid who had taken the other two for a night of deer shooting. We don't have a statement from the miscreants themselves yet, so it is too early to tell, but this is my best guess about what happened.
The condemnation by the college's president and the head of security tried an alternate theory: kid's today are worse than they used to be. "We increasingly see," President Pollick and Chief Youngblood wrote, "young adults throughout our nation incapable of distinguishing between healthy and destructive conduct." Now, collecting young people, especially young men, who engage in destructive conduct is something that colleges have specialized in since the dawn of the university. I don't think things are any worse now than they ever were in that regard.
I am a silver-lining seeker. Here is the silver lining I see in this story. The headline on this story today is not "Methodist College Students Burn Baptist Churches." To even write it seems a silly idea. And that is a blessing to count.