To End the Fires

The burning of yet another black church in the South last Thursday brought heightened attention to a tragedy that has become a national disgrace. President Clinton devoted his Saturday radio address to the problem, declaring that "It's hard to think of a more depraved act of violence than the destruction of a place of worship."

The Matthews-Murkland Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, N.C., was at least the 30th black church edifice destroyed or damaged by fire in the past 18 months. (Another church was damaged Sunday night in Greenville, Texas.) So far, seven people have been arrested and charged with involvement in five fires.

Mr. Clinton announced four steps to "fight back":

*Support for legislation to make it easier for the federal government to prosecute such arson cases;

*Orders for Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents to brief church officials on how to protect their buildings from arsonists;

*Establishment of a toll-free number, 888-ATF-FIRE, for anyone with information on the blazes;

*A request to a federal task force for recommendations on more action.

In addition, Attorney General Janet Reno met Sunday with a coalition of groups, including the National Council of Churches, to discuss the ongoing investigation. Church leaders want a vigorous inquiry but caution against harassment of church members.

While federal officials call the fires "an epidemic of terror," they also say that so far there is little evidence of a conspiracy. Two of the attacks have been linked, but at present the burnings appear to be isolated acts of hatred, some perhaps inspired by news reports of previous arson. Most of the fires have occurred in rural areas where there are few witnesses.

The fires are particularly hurtful to African-Americans, who remember the 1950s and 1960s, when black churches were attacked during the civil rights struggle. The Rev. Jesse Jackson has gone so far as to call the fires a "cultural conspiracy" by a society that tolerates racism.

While federal and state officials pursue the problem, prodded further by the president's commitment to leave no stone unturned, average citizens across the country are not powerless to help. Their prayers can disarm the racial hatred that would appear to spread from person to person, leading to additional crimes. As Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of this newspaper, wrote: "Evil thoughts, lusts, and malicious purposes cannot go forth, like wandering pollen, from one human mind to another, finding unsuspected lodgment, if virtue and truth build a strong defence." That defense is everyone's responsibility.

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