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Is it a case of copycat arson?

By Vision Reporter

Added 12th July 2008 03:00 AM

A SERIES of fires has been sweeping through Uganda’s schools, killing innocent lives and destroying property worth millions of shillings.

A SERIES of fires has been sweeping through Uganda’s schools, killing innocent lives and destroying property worth millions of shillings.

By Carol Natukunda

A SERIES of fires has been sweeping through Uganda’s schools, killing innocent lives and destroying property worth millions of shillings.

In the last week alone, three more schools were burned and another three arson attempts were foiled.

The trend started on April 14, when 20 children burnt to death at Budo Junior School. Since then, the number of school fires has soared to 34.

More than half of them were lit, according to the Police, mostly by undisciplined students meant to revenge disciplinary action meted out to them by the school administration.

Psychologists say what Uganda is going through is a phenomenon popularly known as ‘copycat arson’, but professionally called imitation. Fires inspire others and lead to more fires.

The media unknowingly play a role in perpetuating the cycle, they argue. Hearing or reading about arson can motivate others to burn down a building in a similar way, especially those who were already looking for a way to vent their anger or frustration.

“It is possible to set fires out of imitation. It is geared by the primitive self,” says Peter Matovu, a counselling psychologist and former director of Makerere University Guidance and Counselling Center.

“We have people, even children, who are aggressive but do not want to show it. When there is chance, they copy what they have seen and do unnecessary things, such as setting fires.”

Imitation can be environmental or hereditary, according to Matovu.

“Something can be copied from the surrounding. It is like living with a thief and also becoming a thief. A child who lives in Katanga slums will copy the behaviour of the adults who live there.”

Others inherit manners from their parents or relatives.

“If the father had a culture of whistling as he bounced along, his son is likely to follow suit.”

The copycat arson syndrome might be aggravated by relationship problems, says Stephen Langa, the director of Family Life Network.

“If relationships are not good at home or at school, it pains you. And if you are not supported to release the pain, you become like a time bomb waiting to explode. Such a person has no capacity to feel pity and empathy for others.”

Many arson attacks are desperate attempts to attract attention, Langa believes, especially as working parents are devoting less and less time to their children.

“We are too busy these days to teach children about containing anger and simple values like discipline.”

The Government is putting in place measures to address psychological stress. It wants to compel every school to provide counselling and guidance services.

This is intended to “detect and mitigate school wrangles and grievances before they generate into crime”, according to a report presented to the President last week.

But it might require more to stop the spiral of arson attacks.

The Police and security agents have to ensure that copycat criminals are not only brought to book, but also seen to be brought to book.

Parents and teachers should sensitive children about the damage arsonists can cause to the entire school community and to their own future.

And the media might have to collectively show more restraint in reporting about school fires.

Headteachers panic
Many headteachers are also panicking silently, afraid that their schools might be the next ashes.

“It is scaring. You can never know what to expect,” says Michael Labeja, the deputy headteacher of Luzira Senior Secondary. “Because our neighbour Progressive SS got burnt and there is no explanation. But we are doubly on guard.”

Idan Aine, the head teacher of Hillside High School, Ntungamo also fear that students especially, might be influenced to burn the schools.

“We who have handled these students know them better. Someone is suspended, but keeps on conniving with someone in the school. So they end up behaving the same way,” Aine says.

“It is like smoking out of peer pressure. Some bring petrol to the dorm to clean their leather shoes. So what happens if they decided to rebel? They would burn the dorm,” Aine asks.

Some schools have mixed feelings on the issue and are careful not to comment.

“We clearly don’t know,” says Daudi Mulondo, the headteacher of Kiira College Butiki.

Where copycat arson and crime have been reported
June 2008: In a series of arson attacks, dozens of cars have been torched in Moscow since May. Police say copycats are behind at least some of them

February 2007: 17 youths under 30 years of committed suicide in Bridgend. A borough of 130,000 whose annual suicide count is normally three

October 2007: 28 Orange County homes burnt in Los Angeles. Police put out of reward $285,000 for anyone who gave a tip on the culprits.

November 2005: Over 1,000 cars went up in flames in Germany. in Paris, there were over 1,400 vehicles

October 2006 : A spate of school shootings in Colorado, in less than a month

1990-1995: 780 church burnings in the United States in the 1990’s. Only 144 of these took place in eleven southern states. 64 were black.

Beware of imitations
BEFORE the Sun, there was Goethe. Two centuries ago, before Britain’s boisterous tabloid newspaper had been invented, German parents were reeling from a spate of suicides that were apparently linked to a tragic novel.

Goethe’s 1774 tear-jerker, The Sorrows of Young Werther, is believed to have inspired scores of young men to shoot themselves, as the story’s sensitive hero does. “Werther fever”, as the craze became known, swept across Europe.

A similarly gruesome trend appears to be under way in South Wales. In little over a year, 17 young people are believed to have committed suicide in Bridgend. Connections between some victims — through family, friends or social-networking websites — initially raised fears of a suicide pact or internet cult, a theory that gained momentum as people kept dying in the same way. But on February 19, local police debunked the notion. The real link, they said, could be the media, which may have inspired more deaths by keeping the subject in the public eye.

They may be right. Ever since “Werther”, academics have noted the power of all types of media to tip the vulnerable over the edge. A review of such studies by Oxford University’s Centre for Suicide Research concluded that press coverage can influence both the number of subsequent deaths and the method.

Television was especially powerful. And fiction was as influential as factual programming. A German TV drama featuring a railway suicide inspired a rise in suicides on the tracks — and did so again when it was repeated a few years later.

Pitifully simple measures, such as selling painkillers in smaller quantities, have been shown to dissuade people from taking the plunge. Modest restraint in reporting might help too. In 2006 the Press Complaints Commission, a media watchdog, decreed that journalists should avoid using “excessive detail” about methods of suicide, to stop potential victims learning how many pills to swallow or how far to jump.

South Wales police would like to see less coverage still, fearing that even vague details have planted ideas in young minds. Editors counter that the same could be said of much bad news: excising reports about crime, for example, might reduce anxiety, but by concealing the truth would stifle the opportunity to do something about it.

In that case, they might try harder not to stretch the truth. Resisting the temptation to ramp up such stories might prevent more tragedies.

The economist

Is it a case of copycat arson?

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