From Graffiti to Terrorism
22nd April 2013
One of the most topical criminal acts of the last few years, particularly following the Black Saturday bushfires, is crime of arson. Arson refers to the intentional and malicious lighting of a fire, and often goes hand-in-hand with other criminal offenses such as destruction of property, the cause of serious physical harm, and on occasion, murder. It is unfortunately, a very commonly committed crime in relative terms, given the inherent difficulties associated with the investigation and prosecution processes. Vital evidence is generally destroyed in the process of the crime, and this has allowed many arsonists to walk free, never to be caught or face justice for their actions.
Although the act of firesetting has been committed for a myriad of different intentions throughout criminological history, a particularly prevalent motive in Australia (particularly in Northern Victoria) is the intent to start a bushfire. In bushfire-prone territory, during the bushfire season, arson becomes an immensely difficult crime to detect and investigate, making it an ideal period for people addicted to the act of lighting fires to satisfy their emotional and sensual desires. These people can be broken down into two distinct groups; those who commit the crime due mental illness, and those who commit the crime due to emotional or physical insecurities. Focusing on the latter to begin with, in several cases of arson, the prosecuted criminal has been found to have committed the crime due to sensual thrill that the fire creates. Fire holds a powerful place in the collective psyche; it warms and comforts, it possesses romantic connotations, it is easily sourced and created, and most importantly of all, has the potential to be extremely volatile and dangerous. It is no surprise then that like high-speed pursuits, train surfing, and other high-adrenalin criminal acts, the act of creating a fire yields a great deal of sensory stimulation. For the emotionally stifled, it is a way of ‘feeling something’, a way of breaking free from the boring repetition of existence. For the disempowered, it is a way of creating and manipulating a force with the prospective power to destroy on a vast scale. In some recorded cases of arson, the prosecuted offender has been a fire brigade officer, or member of the reserve. In these cases, the offenders have been generally young and inexperienced, longing for some excitement. In order to break free of the mundaneness of their lives, they start a blaze that they are then required to put out, affirming their status as a ‘hero’. This is however not the case, with the fire getting far out of the offender’s control, and causing enormous damage and in extreme cases, death. One such case of this was the Churchill bushfires that occurred during Black Saturday, with the man charged for lighting the fire, Brendan Sokaluk, a former CFA (Victorian Country Fire Authority) volunteer. Sokaluk: “I guess it come down to, I wanna help the brigade, we were gonna nearly close down… It was also on a personal basis, it was an adrenalin rush, um, to actually go and fight fires I suppose…”
“I just had to get outa the house, and the best way to do that was to go and fight fires…”
For the vast majority of these cases where the fire has been used as a means of relieving boredom/personal issues, or seeking attention, the criminal has been fully aware of their actions and the resulting consequences. Although studies have shown that these people have often faced various forms of emotional trauma through childhood (marital issues, abuse, etc.), the intentional nature of their crime is reflected in their sentencing. The second sub-group of ‘firebugs’ (people who light bushfires) are those who suffer from the mental illness known as ‘pyromania’. This illness refers to those who gain self-gratification, and/or the relief of tension and stress from the act of lighting...