Tilting At Windmills: The Case Of Multiple Motives
Published: May 6th, 2022
By: Shelly Reuben

Tilting at Windmills: The Case of Multiple Motives Sun Columnist and author Shelly Reuben.

The Case of Multiple Motives

A recent article about a “climate activist-Buddhist” burning himself to death in front of the Supreme Court reminded me of how long it has been since I’d read about that kind of political protest. And for the record, no. It was not “a deeply fearless act of compassion,” as reported in the media. It was the defiance of a manipulator whose malignant message was “Do what I demand, or I will self-destruct. AND IT WILL BE YOUR FAULT.”

Egomaniacal martyrdom à la conflagration.

Nevertheless, reading about his act of self-immolation brought to mind the many and varied reasons people have for committing the crime of arson, and I thought you might find that interesting. First, though, a definition from the National Fire Protection’s Guide to Fire & Explosion Investigations: “Arson is the crime of maliciously and intentionally, or recklessly, starting a fire or causing an explosion.”

Now ... on to motives:

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ARSON FOR PROFIT: This would include burning down your home, car, or boat for the insurance money. Or burning down your neighbor’s lemonade stand, because he is trying to sell a glass for ten cents less than what you are charging.

ARSON AS DIVERSION: can be considered a sub-category of arson for profit. For example when one bad-guy of a criminal duo sets a fire at the glove counter of a large department store to divert attention from his partner, who is stealing handfuls of diamonds from the jewelry counter as the store is being evacuated.

ARSON TO COVER UP THE COMMISSION OF ANOTHER CRIME: Such as setting fire to your office to destroy evidence of embezzlement. OR incinerating Aunt Ida so the police won’t discover strangulation marks on her throat after you murdered her, because she was about to disinherit you and change her will.

ARSON FOR REVENGE: This might occur if your old college roommate reconnects with your wife at a 10th anniversary reunion, the two of them run off together, and you pour gasoline outside their hotel room door and kill them for their “act of betrayal.” The Happy Land Social Club fire in the Bronx in 1976 also falls into this category. It was set by a vengeful ex-boyfriend whose “girl” had gone out dancing with another man. Death toll: 25. Ditto for The Happy Land Social Club fire in 1990. Same name. Different club. Different decade. But identical motive. Death toll: 87.

ARSON FOR THE PURPOSE OF INTIMIDATION. The mob wants you to stock their laundry products in your store, and when you don’t, your delivery trucks miraculously begin to burn. Or, when Rudolph Giuliani was district attorney of New York City, he was committed to getting the Mafia out of the Fulton Fish Market. In retaliation, they set arson fires to force him to back down (it didn’t work).

ARSON FOR FUN. I hate this one, and we’re seeing more and more of it lately. Included in this group would be those who set fire to derelicts, hobos, and hopeless drunks when they are sleeping or unconscious in the streets. Let’s hope there is a special place in hell for these evil-doers.

VANITY FIRE SETTER. There are more of these kinds than one would expect. Sadly, they manifest themselves most often in volunteer or professional fire departments. The most notorious of these arsonists was John Leonard Orr, a respected fire marshal who not only set multiple fatal fires in Southern California, but also had the gall to investigate them himself. Orr wrote a “novel" about his exploits, which ultimately led to him being arrested, tried, and given a life sentence without parole for four counts of first-degree murder.

HERO FIRE SETTER. This is probably a sub-category of the vanity fire setter. Charlie King told me an interesting story about when he was a FDNY supervising fire marshal. Apparently, one of the security guards at the World Trade Center had to walk from the 10th floor to the 20th floor many times during his shift to make sure that nothing was amiss. Hour after hour until he was going out of his mind from boredom. To make his life more interesting, he periodically set fires. He would then “discover” the fire, call it in, alert people to the danger, and be a hero to those he had rescued. At least, until Charlie arrested him.

COPY-CAT FIRE SETTERS: Imagine a slightly bored apartment dweller whose life becomes much more interesting when the building across the street accidentally burns down. Fire engines, ambulances, and police cars dash to the scene, bringing an air of excitement, which is quick to disappear once the last hose has been taken up and the last fire truck has disappeared. How to bring that energy and vitality back into his life? Easy. The “copy-cat” fire setter just sets another fire.

JUVENILE FIRE SETTERS: Their motives are usually pretty obvious. They set fires out of malicious mischief, to avoid taking a school test, for kicks, or out of anger, helplessness, and frustration. Some young people set fires compulsively and don’t really know why they are doing it. I remember once after Charlie and I had given a talk about arson at the Mystery Writers of American, a woman came up to us with grief and guilt in her eyes. She told Charlie that when she was a teen, she had set multiple fires. Small ones, and nobody got hurt. She had never told anyone what she’d done, but in the intervening 40 years, she continually worried if she was a bad person. When Charlie explained that many adolescents do the same thing, and most (like her) just grow out of it, you could just see a tidal wave of relief wash over her face

GRUDGE FIRE SETTER. Let’s say the lady selling tokens in the subway doesn’t return change fast enough to a thug who then feels “disrespected.” So he pours flammable liquid into the change slot and sets her on fire (I know that’s a horrible image, but I was called to serve on jury duty for just such a case).

THE DISGRUNTLED EMPLOYEE. Another grudge fire setter is often a disgruntled employee. It could be a porter or some other menial worker, severely reprimanded by management or fired, who then decides “I’ll show them.” He sets a fire, and if he happens to kill 50, 80, 100 people in the process…oh, well.

POLITICAL. RACIST. ACTIVIST: Earth Liberation Front (ELF) radicals who set fires to businesses and organizations that experiment on animals, cut down trees, or commit other acts (real or imagined) that they resent. The Klux Klux Klan (KKK), who burn crosses on lawns and set fire to churches. The aforementioned self-immolating Buddhists. The miscreants who burn people of different races or religions out of their neighborhoods. The rioters who set fires and loot stores during power outages. The arsonists who set fires in the wake of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests. Fires set by neo-Nazis to synagogues. And so on.

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PYROMANIAC. The pathological fire setter has an irresistible urge to burn. He usually sets small fires with available materials, and prefers not to hurt anybody. His urge is satisfied by the act of setting a fire. Fire is his goal and his reward; it is a byproduct of his love affair with flames.

CHILDREN FIRESETTERS: This sad group might include an eight-year-old who lights matches because he is irresistibly fascinated by flame, and a ten-year-old who doesn’t know how else to bring attention to the abuse she is receiving at home. In one such case, a child being sexually molested by her father set a series of fires hoping the authorities would rescue her from circumstances she was powerless to change.

I will probably add to this list as time goes by, but I have already given you too big a gulp of too many disturbed souls, so I will end this with my favorite arson joke: Two men are lounging on the pier at their yacht club. The first says, “I’m here because my hardware store burned down. I took the insurance money and bought a cabin cruiser. How about you?”

The second guy says, “After my ping pong factory got wiped out by a flood, I used my insurance money to buy a sailboat.”

“Oh,” The first man responds, totally intrigued: “So how do you start a flood?”

Copyright © Shelly Reuben, 2022. Shelly Reuben’s books have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. For more about her writing, visit www.shellyreuben.com