Start with the obvious: The burning of 6 black churches in 5 southern states in the span of a week, coming as they have on the heels of the racially-motivated Charleston church massacre, is not just a "tragedy," but a huge problem. And the response of law enforcement -- particularly at the federal level, including the FBI -- has had its own problem: a lack of leadership.
Although two of the fires may have been caused by lightning and a tree limb falling on power lines, according to a CNN report, that would still leave four. Investigators haven't ruled out a link among the burnings, but had "no reason at this point to link them," CNN said it heard from a federal investigator, and no evidence that any of these were hate crimes.
For a moment, give investigators the benefit of the doubt. Trying to determine the cause of fires can be difficult. According to the FBI, a hate crime is a "criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender's bias against a race, religion, disability, ethnic origin or sexual orientation." In other words, if there isn't some specific evidence, like racial slurs or symbols left at the scene, law enforcement may not be able to treat a church burning as a hate crime. And the widespread actions could be a series of copycat actions and not necessarily part of some single conspiracy.
Those are the technicalities. But leadership has to move beyond technicalities. Both the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives have failed terribly as citizens look for answers. The problem is not that they haven't yet found the perpetrators, as investigations take far more effort and time than we've come to expect from prime time police procedural dramas. But the two agencies have done a terrible job at leadership basics.
Leadership isn't being in charge
Both the FBI and ATF have been called in to help with the investigations, although the crimes are also local affairs. The question is not who is in charge. Anyone at any level of an undertaking can exhibit leadership by acting as a leader. You do your part, help others to do theirs, and keep your eye on the ultimate goal. Leadership is about being truly involved in the process and not defining your role by a job description. Both agencies have the resources to act more like leaders than they have chosen to do. Unfortunately, they are so focused on the specifics of the job that they seem to be forgetting that leadership is about relationships.
Relationships are the basis of leadership
We're living in a time when people of color, whether black, Native Americans, or Hispanic, still on the average face worse economic conditions than whites. The national economic recovery has moved far more slowly for them. They are far more likely to spend time in prison or be killed by police. There is a reasonable climate of distrust and suspicion. The FBI and ATF, as parts of the government, should cultivate good relationships with all law-abiding citizens. Part of a relationship is hearing and understanding the concerns of the other party and at least acknowledging them. To say there is no evidence of hate crimes without underscoring what that would technically mean and recognizing that the events could still be racially motivated is to appear as though the agencies don't take the concerns seriously. That drives additional mistrust and makes it impossible to lead. Perhaps the agencies are making that point with black civic leaders, but what good would that alone be when most people aren't privy to such discussions?
Leadership requires strong communications
That brings the other major flaw. Communications on the part of the FBI and ATF are atrocious. Go to the home page on the FBI's website, for example, and you'll see no mention of ongoing investigations. Of course there are limits to what investigators can and should say, but to have no mention is to effectively say, "We're not that concerned." It's even worse. Use Google to look for the words churches and burnings or arson during the last year on the FBI's site and you don't even get a statement or press release. The ATF is no better with apparently no mentions available on its site.
Again, both the AFT and FBI are likely working hard to uncover what has happened. But if they don't obviously appear to care, they can't lead and be effective.