SUPPOSE THAT in 2005 unknown hoodlums had firebombed 10 gay bookstores and bars in San Francisco, reducing several of them to smoking rubble. It takes no effort to imagine the alarm that would have spread through the Bay Area's gay community or the manhunt that would have been launched to find the attackers. The blasts would have been described everywhere as "hate crimes," editorial pages would have thundered with condemnation, and public officials would have vowed to crack down on crimes against gays with unprecedented severity.
Suppose that vandals last month had attacked 10 Detroit-area mosques and halal restaurants, leaving behind shattered windows, wrecked furniture, and walls defaced with graffiti. The violence would be national front-page news. On blogs and talk radio, the horrifying outbreak of anti-Muslim bigotry would be Topic No. 1. Bills would be introduced in Congress to increase the penalties for violent "hate crimes" -- no one would hesitate to call them by that term -- and millions of Americans would rally in solidarity with Detroit's Islamic community.
Fortunately, those sickening scenarios are only hypothetical. Here is one that is not:
In the past two weeks, 10 Baptist churches have been burned in rural Alabama. Five churches in Bibb County -- Ashby Baptist, Rehobeth Baptist, Antioch Baptist, Old Union Baptist, and Pleasant Sabine -- were torched between midnight and 3 a.m. on Feb. 3. Four days later, arsonists destroyed or badly damaged Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church in Greene County, Dancy First Baptist Church in Pickens County, and two churches in Sumter County, Galilee Baptist and Spring Valley Baptist. On Saturday, Beaverton Freewill Baptist Church in northwest Alabama became the 10th house of worship to go up in flames.
Ten arson attacks against 10 churches -- all of them Baptist, all in small Alabama towns, all in the space of eight days: If anything is a hate crime, obviously this is.
Or is it? "We're looking to make sure this is not a hate crime and that we do everything that we need to do," FBI Special Agent Charles Regantold reporters in Birmingham. Make sure this is not a hate crime? If 10 Brooklyn synagogues went up in flames in a little over a week, wouldn't investigators start from the assumption that the arson was motivated by hatred of Jews? If 10 Cuban-American shops and restaurants in Miami were deliberately burned to the ground, wouldn't the obvious presumption be that anti-Cuban animus was involved?
Apparently Baptist churches are different.
"I don't see any evidence that these fires are hate crimes," Mark Potok, a director of the left-wing Southern Poverty Law Center, told the Los Angeles Times. "Anti-Christian crimes are exceedingly rare in the South."
But are anti-Christian crimes really that rare? Or are they simply less interesting to the left, which prefers to cast Christians as victimizers, not victims?
A search of the SPLC's website, for example, turns up no references to Jay Scott Ballinger, a self-described Satan worshiper deeply hostile to Christianity, who was sentenced to life in prison for burning 26 churches between 1994 and 1999. Yet if those weren't "hate crimes," what were they?
Running through the coverage of the latest church burnings is an almost palpable yearning to cast the story in racial terms. "Federal investigators are looking for two white men for questioning in connection with a string of church fires in central Alabama," began a National Public Radio story on Friday. "Race may be a factor." In fact, race seems not to be a factor at all -- five of the churches had mostly white congregations, five were largely black. To a media ever ready to expose racism in American culture, the arsonists' lack of regard for skin color must be maddening.
In 1996, a spate of fires in the South was wildly and falsely trumpeted in the media as an eruption of racism. "We are facing an epidemic of terror," said Deval Patrick, the Clinton administration's assistant attorney general for civil rights. But as it turned out, there was no racist conspiracy. More than a third of the arsonists arrested were black, and more than half the churches burned were white. So perhaps it is progress of a sort that, this time around, the media are keeping in check the urge to cry "Racism!"
But real progress will come only when we abandon the whole misguided notion of "hate crimes," which deems certain crimes more deserving of outrage and punishment not because of what the criminal did, but because of the group to which the victim belonged. The burning of a church is a hateful act regardless of the congregants' skin color. That some people bend over backward not to say so is a disgrace.