This week's shootings at a Fort Worth, Texas, church are a tragic reminder that all symbols of human community - from schools to hospitals to prayer groups - need to protect themselves from attacks by disturbed individuals.
While the gunman's specific motive was not immediately known, early indications were that antireligious feelings were part of what drove him to roll a pipe bomb down the aisle of Fort Worth's Wedgewood Baptist Church and fire 9-mm ammunition at random targets.
"What happened in Wedgewood, that was persecution.... We have to assume they were being shot for their faith," says Richard Land, a spokesman for the Southern Baptist Convention in Nashville, Tenn.
Ironically, the type of teen gathering the Wedgewood gunman attacked, a rally for "See You at the Pole Day," is something that has experienced tremendous growth in the wake of the mass shooting at Columbine High in Littleton, Colo., earlier this year.
"Pole" days were started in 1990 with the encouragement of the Texas Baptist Convention. Students, generally members of prayer or Bible clubs at given schools, gather at the campus flag pole to affirm their faith and pray for their school and society.
Sept. 15 was the annual day for such rallies around the counter. The Wedgewood church gathering was being held in conjunction with these schoolyard efforts. Baptist officials say about 3 million students nationwide now take part in Pole days.
Such gatherings have increased dramatically since the Columbine tragedy, where one student, Cassie Bernall, was shot after she affirmed her belief in God. Their very growth may make them a target, however, for the disgruntled.
In an interview before the most recent shooting, Jonathan Graf of Pray! magazine referred to the Columbine attack and said, "I'm not sure we won't see more of these things happening because prayer is on the increase, particularly among teens."
The massacre began just before 7 p.m. at Wedgwood Baptist Church in a quiet middle-class neighborhood. Witnesses said a man stepped into the main church hall as about 150 people were singing hymns. He opened fire into the backs of the mainly teenage crowd and yelled, "What you believe is all [bull]" and "stay still" while he shot at people.
The middle-age gunman, identified as Larry Gene Ashbrook of Forth Worth, shot himself after killing seven people in the church.
The number of attacks against churches in recent years has not necessarily grown. By one measure - the Department of Justice's National Church Arson Task Force study - arsons, bombings, or attempted bombings at houses of worship have declined in recent years. Their latest figures show a total of 670 such religious attacks between Jan. 1, 1995, and Sept. 8, 1998.
Other kinds of institutions have also recently been the scene of multiple killings. Earlier this week, in an attack that got little national attention, a Vietnamese cook and laborer named Dung Trinh killed three people at a West Anaheim, Calif., medical center following the death of his mother at the hospital.
The spate of US killings, from Columbine to Wedgewood, has led some experts to speculate on the rise of an "angry male" syndrome. Perhaps an uncertainty about what constitutes masculinity, and masculine response to adversity, is what lies behind killers' rage, goes this theory.
Susan Faludi, in her new book "Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man," writes, "The man controlling his environment is today the prevailing American image of masculinity. He is to be in the driver's seat, the king of the road, forever charging down the open highway.... He'll fight attempts to tamp him down; if he has to, he'll use his gun."
For now, experts urge caution about generalizations. "Certainly these are monstrous events..., but whether you can link it to something like the angry white male is something else," says James Lynch, a professor at American University.
He says it's tempting to want to make that connection. The large waves of immigration and opening up of society over the past 30 years have resulted in downward mobility for many white men, the most privileged group in society. That's made some angry, Lynch says, giving the "angry white male" link logical plausibility.
But, he adds, "Why should the frustration be taken out in these spectacular acts?"
Staff Writers Scott Baldauf in Austin, Texas, Jane Lampmann in Boston, and Alexandra Marks in New York contributed to this report.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society