Date of Award

January 2006

Degree Type

Restricted Access Thesis

Document Type

Master Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Science (MS)


Justice Studies

First Advisor

Derek J. Paulsen

Department Affiliation

Justice Studies

Second Advisor

Peter B. Kraska

Department Affiliation

Justice Studies

Third Advisor

Victor E. Kappeler

Department Affiliation

Justice Studies


The relationship between man and fire has always been precarious. History has cast fire in various roles: heat, tool, ceremony, weapon and metaphor. The history of fire is a history of man. The mechanical utility and the symbolic imagery of fire transcend historical, geographical and cultural divisions. From Prometheus to Lucifer, fire has found regular employment in allegorical social admonition. Arson continues to be utilized by the revolutionary avant-garde despite centuries of technical and political refinement. Insomuch as fire frightens us it fascinates us; this essay attempts to excavate a subjective appreciation for what it means to brandish fire for political gain.

This study employs contemporary case studies to examine the continued use of arson in fringe political movements-guerrilla politics. The first study contextualizes the use of arson as subversive politics in reviewing the 1933 Reichstag fire in pre-War Nazi Germany. The final case study explores the transition to arson as terrorism. The 1990s witnessed the emergence of a church arson 'epidemic' in the American Deep South that revived memories of the racial symbolism employed by the Ku Klux Klan. Each case of arson while loosely connected soon fell subject to the same familiar political rhetoric.

While widely condemned, the social outcries over perceived arson threats are generally short-lived. Every 'epidemic' is met with conveniently amorphous definitions easily recast by 'moral entrepreneurs' awaiting infamy. The utility of arson paradoxically becomes less a function of the arsonists seeking change, rather benefiting the very structures it seeks to destroy. Conceived out of resistance, arson is easily coopted by whoever commands the larger audience, to which chemistry happily obliges.