Science

Male, 18 to 35 years old, well integrated? Complex “robot portrait” of the arsonist

Images of burning forests. Islands of freshness, devastated by fire. Perhaps behind… the idea of ​​a deliberate gesture. Devastating fires have increased in frequency since early summer due to drought and heat waves associated with global warming. More than 20,000 hectares have been burned in the Gironde since mid-July, leading to the evacuation of 36,750 people after two fires. A few days later, in Brittany, two fires broke out in Finistère, devastating 1,771 hectares of land in one week. Finally, finally, almost 1,000 hectares were destroyed by flames in Herault. Every time or almost every time a criminal trace is considered.

South of Arcachon, the first outbreak of fire at La Teste-de-Buch may have been accidental. For the second, near the village of Landiras, the criminal trail is privileged. Bordeaux prosecutor Frédéric Portree also said that a judicial inquiry was opened on 22 July. In Brittany, the fires of Mont-d’Arre would also have had a criminal origin. Two investigations were launched into “deliberate destruction of firewood, wood, moorland, poppies or plantations” by fire. Finally, in Hérault, the public prosecutor’s office of Montpellier also commissioned an investigation on Tuesday 26 July. “The proximity of the two fires necessarily leads to a criminal hypothesis, and it was on this sole basis that the judicial investigation entrusted to the gendarmerie company Lodev was launched,” he said. With each incident, the image of the “arsonist” returns to the collective imagination. But how to explain the motives of those who cause these destructive outbreaks of flame?

Dispute between doctors and lawyers

The arsonist was first identified and defined as such in the 19th century. In 1833, the French psychiatrist Charles-Chrétien Henri Marc coined the term pyromania in the Annals of Public Hygiene and Forensic Medicine. According to the theories of the period, the practice is placed in the box of monomania, just like erotomania, paranoia, or even kleptomania. At that time, the specialist divided this disorder into two types: the first was an irrepressible obsession with arson, consubstantial with the individual; the second is motivated by an external element such as revenge or jealousy. Spread by Henri Marc’s student, the alienist Jean-Étienne Esquirol, the concept is nonetheless debated between physicians and lawyers. The latter are faced with the issue of irresponsibility of the individual. On the one hand, the mandarins, who claim that the lack of remorse among arsonists is a sign of their aloofness. On the other hand, there are lawyers who, on the contrary, see this as evidence of his responsibility.

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For decades, the discussion even spread among medical professionals, and more and more practitioners refused to consider pyromania as a separate medical category. Until the last century, case studies saw the arsonist as “a simple spirit imbued with nostalgia, whose social and ancestral origin would be adverse and imprinted with alcoholism,” as explained in an article in Medical Review Swiss. Only in 1951, in a monograph by two American researchers, Nolan D.S. Lewis and Helen Yarnell, the behavior that is today associated with pyromania was defined as a gesture made after an irrational urge, not motivated by any objective reason.

Difficult concept to define

This rather broad concept covers several types of triggers. “Today, this term is used too often: not all those who are classified as arsonists are necessarily such,” says Professor Michel Benezek, a specialist in criminal psychiatry. He graduated from two categories Henri Marc. Today we prefer to distinguish an arsonist from an arsonist. “When the former acts impulsively, the latter often draws fire out of vengeance. His action has a specific purpose, an offense against an identified person, the specialist continues. that once his offense is committed, he a priori will not start again,” said Dr. Pierre Lamothe, former chief physician of the Center for Mental Health for Prisoners and Legal Psychiatry in Lyon and an honorary expert approved by the Court of Cassation.

“Not everyone who is classified as an arsonist is necessarily one”

Conversely, the arsonist seems to have started again: according to a study published in 2014 and conducted on a sample of 441 Finnish arsonists between 1973 and 1998, criminal acts recur with a frequency of about six weeks. According to several British studies, up to a quarter of arson attacks are committed by repeat offenders. Fires also tend to increase in intensity over time. An American study conducted in 2007 on a group of 21 people clarified this composite portrait. Far from developing on the fringes of society, the arsonist is often a well-integrated young man between the ages of 18 and 35 who sets fires in the region in which he lives. But this description must be taken with a grain of salt: Difficult to define and study, pyromania is often only studied in relatively small samples.

desire for rebellion

First of all, this sketch of a composite portrait also does not explain the motivations of these people. They are not necessarily associated with an underlying psychiatric problem, as was believed in the 19th century. “You can have a ‘normal’ personality with an instinctive problem that moves on fire,” explained Dr. Ivan Gasman, psychiatrist and head of the Department for Difficult Patients Henri Colin in Villejuif (Ile-de-France) in the weekly Sciences et avenier. Pathology was also excluded in 2013 from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Their fascination with fire and, moreover, their desire to act would have more to do with social issues. “First of all, there is a desire to rebel against society, against the social order, without being caught. It is for this reason that arsonists are usually well integrated: they only express their dissatisfaction with the authorities in these fires, ”continues Pierre Lamotte. . This “release” of resentment would also allow them to experience a feeling close to omnipotence. Thus, according to the Swiss Medical Review, “the power of fire is used for actions that promote social acceptance, admiration, fear, or help.”

arsonist firefighter

In the 1970s, psychiatrist Ben Soussan analyzed that by setting fire, the arsonist imbued “a sense of inferiority. Thus, it is necessary to boast, it is better to kindle a fire than to put it out.” Or, in a nutshell, the famous case of the arsonist firefighter. In 2016, in California, a former firefighter was sentenced to five years in prison and $246,832 in damages to the California Forest Department for causing about thirty fires between 2006 and 2007. In court, the man gave several reasons to explain his actions: boredom, the desire to make more money by turning it off… And to impress his colleagues. “There is also a kind of imitation and stimulation caused by the increase in fires. The arsonist may want to better reproduce what he has seen in other media,” continues Pierre Lamotte. In short, he wants to start a fire that will be “larger” than his neighbor, several regions further away. “This is a competition, the game of which is multiplied by the fact that you are not caught,” the psychiatrist concludes.

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However, the arsonist takes a big risk. If he is not declared a delusional psychotic – a person in whom judgment can be brought about – he is liable before the law. A person who voluntarily kindles a fire is punished with imprisonment for up to 10 years and a fine of 150,000 euros. A sentence that could be up to 15 years in prison if a fire devastated a forest or a maquis.

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