This is just so hard to believe," said the state fire marshal, Richard W. Montgomery, after Alabama authorities caught the arsonists who burned nine churches. "My profile on these suspects is shot all to heck and back."
The church burners were three bright college students from good families: Benjamin N. Moseley, Russell L. DeBusk Jr. (both 19, from the Methodist-related Birmingham-Southern College), and Matthew Lee Cloyd (age 20, from the University of Alabama, Birmingham).
Mr. Moseley and Mr. DeBusk were theater majors, active in campus productions. They got roles in a movie and were making a film themselves. On the day they were arrested, they were profiled in the campus newspaper under the headline, "BSC students Russ DeBusk and Ben Moseley are on the road to stardom." Mr. Cloyd was an academic standout, a pre-med major.
Now their promising careers have to be put on hold, as they each face 45 years in prison. So why did these young men set churches on fire? Mr. Cloyd told a witness that the arson spree started "as a joke, and it got out of hand." So far, authorities are playing down any religious motives, and the defense attorneys are portraying the arsons as just a drunken spree rather than a hate crime.
But college students today reveal themselves to the world on the internet. On postings at Mr. Moseley's Facebook.com site (see "Peer review, Feb. 4, 2006), Mr. Cloyd wrote, "Let us defy the very morals of society instilled upon us by our parents, our relatives and of course Jesus." A month before setting the first fire, Mr. Cloyd wrote, "It is time to reconvene the season of evil!"
Meanwhile, Mr. Moseley and Mr. DeBusk were identifying themselves to their classmates as "satanists." Which, they hastened to say, was "not about worshipping the devil, but about the pursuit of knowledge." Yeah, right. But their attacks on churches were not drive-by firebombings. They would break into the sanctuary and, in a conscious act, kindle at the altar.
Mr. Cloyd also wrote, "May our parents be clueless!" Many adults do not realize that nihilism has become a major strain in the youth culture, especially among intelligent, creative young people, who become convinced of their superiority to their peers and to adult society. They typically become cynics, believing neither in the liberal pap they are force-fed at school nor in the more conservative ideals of their parents. They scorn the church, which they blame for not understanding or appreciating them. Their attitude is reinforced by their music, and they relate to everything with mockery, irony, and theatrical self-displays.
That these three students saw burning churches as a "joke" calls to mind the case of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, two wealthy students at the University of Chicago with genius IQs, who murdered a child in 1924 for the sheer philosophical thrill of it. After all, they had been studying Nietzsche, the philosopher revered still today for teaching that there are no absolutes, morality is relative, and superior beings create their own values by their choices. "Is any blame attached because somebody took Nietzsche's philosophy seriously and fashioned his life upon it?" asked their lawyer, Clarence Darrow. "It is hardly fair to hang a 19-year-old boy for the philosophy that was taught him at the university."
Such transgression for its own sake was also the theme of Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment and Alfred Hitchcock's The Rope, works these liberal arts, film students were probably never exposed to.
But while Satan was at work in these church burnings, so was Christ. In this racially divided region, black Christians and white Christians-both of whom lost their churches-helped each other clean up the ruins, provided for each other's needs, and worshipped together. "They may have set the church building on fire," said one parishioner, "but they also set the people on fire. They're all getting together now."