Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Everything in the Garden (and the Library) Is NOT Lovely

January is a great and terrible time for gardeners at latitude 36° 51'. Aucklanders are harvesting veges, picking flowers, nurturing monarch caterpillars and either watering like there’s no tomorrow, or hoping things don’t get blown down in gales and washed away in downpours. Then there’s the Next Big Thing to plan for. “February”, ye olde Yates Garden Guide advises, “is the main month to plant bulbs.”     

Good friends of mine living 10 minutes from Auckland — or at least from the white wooden post marking its boundary with Kaipara — face their busiest time of year in the bulb season. Lately, though, they’ve been forced to put all that aside and think about darker subjects. In incidents that put sleepy seaside Mangawhai on the national news, someone scrawled abusive graffiti on their buildings and cars, then a week later their “Blooming Bulbs” business was torched.

Like my friends, Juliet and Lindsay, I find it hard to focus on flowers right now, as I’m wondering what drove some person or persons unknown to call them “filthy dikes” and to destroy their livelihood. So instead of going to the public library for Hatch and Hobbs’s Bulbs for New Zealand Gardens or Phillips and Rix’s Bulbs, I’ve been there to learn why people start fires.

Juliet at Blooming Bulbs, Feb 2010.
In fact I’ve done this from the comfort of my own home. Rather than choose a book from the catalogue (none seemed specific enough) I’ve used the Auckland Libraries’ Digital Library, in particular the databases crammed with thousands of searchable magazines and journals. In many cases, I can select “full text” and download a whole article. On Google I can’t always get whole articles, and unlike the library databases, Google’s main page (though not Scholar) brings up whatever anybody decides to put on the internet. Its findings are a blend of popularity contest and meta-data, clever use of key words in HTML, the HyperText Markup Language that’s behind the sentences we see on the screen. There is something to be said for a process that depends on publishers or subject specialists saying yea or nay, each step of the way.

My next post can look at how Aucklanders (and possibly others) can use these databases through free public library membership. Right now, my focus is on four articles I found relevant and easy to understand.

Can we fix on a profile?
It’s tempting to embrace Ellen White’s thinking in ‘Profiling Arsonists and Their Motives’. All of us want to know why arsonists strike, and we’ve seen enough Wire in the Blood to believe that if the pros can fix on a profile, they’ll hunt down the perp. White’s article is the least academic. She differentiates between types of fire-setting (as do others) but goes further, offering a table with long lists of characteristics. The types that could apply in my friends’ case are:

• Thrill-seekers/vandals, who (according to White’s table) tend to be adolescent, often work in groups and routinely commit vandalism and theft in association with their fires.
• Arsonists motivated by ‘Hate/Spite/Revenge’, who also tend to engage in vandalism or destruction of other property, especially that of a personal or sentimental nature. These people (individuals, says the main article) want to hurt and intimidate the target and have no regard for others’ safety. They’re enraged, middle-aged, may recently have had stressful changes in their lives, and are your common-and-garden-variety arsonist.

That may all be true, but unlike the main article, White doesn’t link her table to any research. There are contradictions. So I’m taking it with many grains of salt.

The packing shed destroyed, Jan 2011.
Rebekah Doley’s ‘Making Sense of Arson through Classification’ makes more limited, more careful claims, pointing out that “all arson classifications are inherently flawed”, partly because the sample is biased (it tends to involve the small percentage of people caught). She notes Ann Barker’s categories and numerous sub-categories of arson, such as:

• Vindictive fire-setting (for revenge or jealousy)
• Instrumental fire-setting (to achieve something such as a cover-up, a cry for help, self-destruction, heroic status. Doley includes ‘children’ here — maybe playing with fire to ‘see what it does’?
• Cathartic fire-setting (for sexual/ other pleasure, excitement, relief of boredom/tension).

Barker’s expertise also features in a New South Wales Parliamentary Library paper (thanks, Google). Author Talina Drabsch repeats her conclusion that there are three reasons to use fire as a weapon: very little skill is needed; it may be familiar from childhood; and we associate it with protest and power. Fire brings “maximal rewards for the minimal effort”, Barker says.

Prejudice as a motive
Messner et al look at ‘Distinctive Characteristics of Assaults Motivated by Bias’, and by the A-word they mean acts of intimidation generally, not necessarily one person hitting another. They use the definition from the US federal Hate Crime Statistics Act (1990):

crimes that manifest evidence of prejudice based on race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or ethnicity, including where appropriate the crimes of murder, nonnegligent manslaughter; forcible rape; aggravated assault, simple assault, intimidation; arson; and destruction, damage or vandalism of property.
Graffiti at Juliet and Lindsay’s Mangawhai home and business.
Their study surely applies to the graffiti Lindsay and Juliet experienced at Mangawhai (isn’t “filthy dikes” a bias crime?), as well as the arson a week later.

These researchers talk about ‘specialist’ versus ‘versatile’ offenders. The first — and I simplify — are motivated more by bias than by general criminal intent. The others are crims who happen to be bigots. “Our evidence is more consistent with the versatile offender model”, Messner et al say. “It suggests that bias offenders tend to commit other crimes” and are “just as likely as other criminal offenders to act impulsively... Perhaps, on average, they are more prejudiced than the conventional offender.... Bigotry may serve as a factor in the selection of the particular victim rather than as the catalyst to the criminal act.”

Suffering and survival
Victims suffer, and In ‘Hate Crimes: A Brief Review’, Jenny Ardley suggests that such crimes hit particularly hard. They’re not random, she notes; the targets have been chosen (even if opportunism has a role), and they feel it. The “deep and long lasting impact” is not only on them but also on “their community and the wider community around them”, says Ardley. These are “message crimes” (a colleague’s term), with the offender telling the victims’ community “that that person’s identity is offensive to the perpetrator and they should be punished with violence or intimidation”.

For Lindsay and Juliet, the good news (if you can call it that) is Ardley’s suggestion that “stronger members of a minority [may] ...fare better in surviving a hate crime attack.” These two sixty-something women were targeted because they were known to be “dikes” but their very identification with the gay and lesbian communities — through involvement in organisations such as Auckland’s Gay and Lesbian Singers (GALS) and through strong networks of gay and lesbian friends — can help them.

The reverse is also true: the community’s identification with Juliet and Lindsay can help. A Facebook page, ‘Opposition to hate crime against Blooming Bulbs’, specifies a bank account where the Gay Auckland Business Association is collecting funds, and mentions fundraising events as far away as Dunedin (the other end of NZ).

Blooming Bulbs before (Feb 2010) and after.
This may seem many latitudes from the library — or the garden, for that matter — but it’s really not. The information I gathered via my public library has been crucial in helping me think through this ugly crime. And my thirst for knowledge isn’t quenched yet. 

Though Auckland Libraries’ catalogue doesn’t list the book that pops up repeatedly in articles I’ve seen, the New Zealand Libraries’ Catalogue (also accessible through Auckland’s Digital Library) tells me that other NZ libraries have it. It’s Ann Barker’s Arson: A Review of the Psychiatric Literature, and I plan to request it via interloan (another service of Auckland Libraries). After that I’ll go out in the garden again.

Ardley, Jenny; ‘Hate Crimes: A Brief Review’, The International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy, 2005, Vol 25, No 12.
Doley, Rebekah; ‘Making Sense of Arson through Classification’, Psychiatry, Psychology and Law, 2003, Vol 10, No 2.
Drabsch, Talina; ‘Arson’, New South Wales Parliamentary Library Research Service, Aug 2004, Briefing Paper No 2/03.
Messner, Steven F; McHugh, Suzanne; Felson, Richard B; ‘Distinctive Characteristics of Assaults Motivated by Bias’, Criminology, Aug 2004, Vol 42 No 3. 
White, Ellen Emerson; ‘Profiling Arsonists and Their Motives: An Update’, Fire Engineering, Mar 1996, Vol 149, No 3.

Beach at Mangawhai.


  1. very thoughtful reflections Claire

  2. The library as a source of information to cope with tragedy - this is very inspiring. Thank you.
    When I worked in a public library branch located in a busy shopping mall, we were the target of thrill-seeking arsonists. A group of teen boys stood a book on a shelf with the pages fanned open and lit it on fire. Smoke was visible above the stacks after the boys rushed out. While another staff member pulled the fire alarm, I grabbed the book and stomped on it to smother the flames. The firefighters responding to our call were a bit confused about our location because the same boys (who were later apprehended) had also set a fire in a greeting card shop in the mall. We were fortunate that the only damage was to the one book.

  3. Thanks Claire. Academising(is there such a word? you'll know what I mean)certainly helps draw attention from aching heart.Been scrambling through all my family stuff on top of containers - videos & sound tapes of kids and my Mum, books that wouldn't fit into bookshelves etc.
    Profiling, despite its dubious aspect, is fun though. My money is on someone 25-45 who has a specific grudge against lesbians, as well as lacking empathy for other minority groups who have a different world view. That person could well be witty in a black way and so generally personable,often cruel to those close and/or animals, and a coward when cornered. There well may have been a sexual excitement accompanying each sortie onto the property. Education stopped at age 15; motor skills a bit dicey. Pakeha.
    I think I am pretty safe writing that; this person would never look at this blog!