Powerlessness often drives the act of arson

March 14, 1992|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Staff Writer

A potent and dangerous mix of anger, sadism and powerlessness may be the fuel that ignites the crime of arson, according to a psychiatrist with expertise in various anti-social behaviors.

Dr. Mark S. Komrad, an attending psychiatrist at Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital in Towson, said arsonists who aren't setting fires for profit or revenge are often acting out an unconscious drama of anger and sadism aimed at abusive authority figures from their childhood.

In the midst of a life that seems outwardly normal and law-abiding, comes an event -- perhaps divorce, drinking or unemployment -- that is somehow an analogy to that childhood trauma. "That suddenly opens a corridor to those repressed memories," he said.

Through the violence of setting the fires, breaking the law and defying authority, he said, an arsonist can act out long-standing anger and reverse his powerlessness.

But "all this is going on at a level of the mind that is not directly accessible to his conscious awareness," he said.

Dr. Komrad was interviewed after a suspect was arrested in a series of arson fires in Ellicott City and southwestern Baltimore County. However, his remarks were about arsonists generally, without any knowledge of the suspect or possible motives in the fires.

Arsonists with unconscious motives are just one of several types, Dr. Komrad said. Some are set by psychotics, who may act in obedience to "voices" they say they hear. Many arson fires are set by people with conscious motivations such as revenge or insurance fraud.

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