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Treatment of MacGregor Pair Too Severe

Column by A. Arif Husain
Staff Reporter

A front page article in last week's issue of The Tech reported on two students, Adrian B. Danieli '97 and Peter H. Tsang '95, who set a fire in C-entry of MacGregor House. The Campus Police first came to investigate in mid-December, and since then Danieli and Tsang have been blatantly mistreated and misrepresented. At the end of last semester they were asked to leave the dorm, and are now only allowed back with an official escort. Later, they faced a magistrate's hearing in Middlesex County District Court. The magistrate clerk suspended the case but warned that, if charged, the penalty for section 1 arson could include up to 20 years in prison. The two are now awaiting the decision of the Committee on Discipline.

This course of action has been exorbitant in its severity and is an attempt to make an example of the only two names available amidst the recent string of suspicious fires across campus. I commend the Campus Police for their attempts to make MIT a safe place to live. But prosecution of the innocent is no way to compensate for freedom of the guilty. In a memo to Dean for Undergraduate Education and Student Affairs Arthur C. Smith, Chief of Campus Police Anne P. Glavin wrote: "The reckless act of Danieli and Tsang] jeopardized the safety and well-being of some 350 students in MacGregor House." As a resident of the suite adjacent to where the fire occurred, I can't help but feel this account has been exaggerated.

The incident occurred some time in November, and was witnessed by only one person. Isopropyl alcohol was poured on the floor and ignited. The heat caused nearby areas of carpet to melt, but nothing but the alcohol actually burned. I was in my room at the time, and I heard no commotion, no smoke, and nothing to alert me of imminent danger. In fact, even people in the same suite found no evidence of the fire except for the singe marks it left behind. This is not to say that because it was not loud or chaotic, it could not be dangerous. My point is that the incident hardly affected anyone.

In the year-and-a-half that I have lived in a dormitory, I have seen far more serious and prominent incidents go unquestioned. Last year, two students in MacGregor set fire to a stack of pizza boxes in the Tastefully Furnished Lounge on the first floor. The entire area from the Convenience Store to the lobby was filled with smoke, and the Cambridge Fire Department rushed to the scene. This case posed a threat and nuisance to the whole dorm, but these students went free. Why, then, are Danieli and Tsang being prosecuted when their act was not nearly as harmful? With four mysterious fires in Burton-Conner House, two in MacGregor, and four more around campus, this third MacGregor incident is the only concrete case.

But the Danieli-Tsang case is clearly different. First of all, the fire involved isopropyl alcohol, which is mildly flammable and burns quickly with little heat produced. It is the type of substance used in burners in children's chemistry sets - hardly the tool of a deliberate arsonist. All of the other cases involved newspaper or wood, which have a much longer duration of burning. Additionally, wood and paper have the potential to move or be moved, and ignite other surfaces. The alcohol was used in a small area in the center of a completely empty room. The carpet was fire-resistant, and there was no possibility that any other surface could catch fire, or that the fire would spread, since the fuel would be used up quickly.

The most important point to consider in the case of Danieli and Tsang is their fire was always attended and immediately extinguished. Every other recent campus fire was found unattended, making them far more threatening, and implying a definite carelessness and malice. When Danieli and Tsang set fire to the carpet they were stupid. But they were not careless, and clearly not malicious. When they realized that the fire was more than they had expected, Danieli and Tsang immediately took control and put it out. This fact was recognized by the residents of their entry who produced a petition in their support. The document was signed by a number of other MacGregor residents including the house president and vice-president. Even the witness who testified about the fire agreed that the two should be allowed to return. Obviously, residents did not feel it was a threat.

I agree that Danieli and Tsang should pay for what they did. They should be charged the $150 estimated to replace the carpet. Their crime was vandalism, and should be treated as such. However, the law classifies setting a public fire as arson, with no consideration of the motive.

I suppose the potential for harm in an uncontrolled fire caused lawmakers to create these rules. But I would hope that the deans and committees whose job it is to provide for the best interests of the MIT community would be more reasonable. True, by making the Danieli-Tsang case an example, other fires may be prevented. But at what expense? In their upcoming decision, I sincerely hope that the Campus Police and the MIT administration realize that the rights and well-being of Danieli and Tsang are just as important as the safety of those whom their prosecution is aimed to protect.

Editor's note: The author is pleased to report that just prior to publication the Committee on Discipline elected to permit Danieli and Tsang to return to MacGregor. The opinions in this piece reflect on a more general issue, of which the MacGregor case was only an example.