A commenter, King Beauregard, wrote the following in response to my piece, “What Some Liberals Get Wrong About The Fight Against ISIL”:
If I have a history of arson and then I ironically find myself in a position to rescue someone from a burning building, shouldn’t I rescue them? What sort of moral idiot would think that I should let them burn? If anything, I am morally obligated to put myself more at risk than the average citizen to atone for my past crimes.
That got me thinking.
Let’s imagine that the fire department here in Joplin once hired a fire chief who turned out to be an arsonist. But before he was found out, he and a few of his fellow firefighters started a rather horrendous fire inside a community several miles from Joplin that ended up consuming several homes and killing several people. Soon after the fire started, most of the Joplin fire department was called out to help fight the raging fire, since our chief started it, and after several days most of the fire was under control.
Meanwhile, the fire-happy fire chief retired and a new fire chief replaced him, promising he would properly use the fire department from now on. The new chief, after a few more days, decided that the Joplin fire department had done enough to put out the fire his predecessor had started, and he turned the rest of the job—tending to the smoldering ashes—over to the local community. He brought the Joplin fire trucks and the Joplin firefighters back home.
Soon enough, though, the local leaders in the fire-ravaged community, instead of concentrating on putting out the smoldering ashes, began to fight with each other. And not long after, a raging fire was again consuming their land, threatening to spread to other cities and towns. The new Joplin fire chief had a decision to make. He had promised Joplin residents that he would wisely use their firefighting resources. But through his upper-floor office window he could see on the horizon the smoke from the newest out-of-control fire. Should he send in equipment to help the locals put out the fire? Should he, God forbid, send in Joplin firefighters once again? Or should he do nothing, since the fire was far from Joplin and Joplinites felt they had already sacrificed so much for people in the other community, with much of that sacrifice highly resented by some who still remembered that first fire chief’s arsonous behavior?
What should the new Joplin fire chief do?
Here are some of the ways Joplin citizens have responded to this scenario:
1) Many folks say that the first fire chief wasn’t an arsonist at all. Yes, he started the first fire, but it was because he was just trying to clear the land and make room for a new development that would improve the fortunes of everyone around, including people in faraway Joplin. The chief intended no ill will, they say, despite all the destruction and death. And they further assert that the second fire chief is the one who started the second big fire by not following the plan laid out by the first fire chief. They say if the new chief had just stayed with the program, the scorched acreage would be much prettier than it is today and all the death and destruction would not have been in vain. But they will grudgingly applaud the new chief if he sends Joplin firemen and equipment back into the community to put out a fire they blame him, not the first chief, for starting.
2.) Some other Joplinites say that because the first fire chief was obviously an arsonist, because he set a horrific fire that killed so many and destroyed so much, he should have been prosecuted for his crime. They spend a lot of time talking about that around their kitchen tables. They further say that sending more Joplin firefighters and equipment to the burning community will only make things worse, since some of the locals resent it when outsiders come into their towns, some of them so resentful they would even shoot at the Joplin firefighters as they try to fight the fire. These Joplin residents even go so far as to say that it is the nature of any fire department, especially the Joplin fire department, to want to start fires, since it keeps the firefighters busy. And they add that since the first fire chief started the fire on purpose, it would be stupid to think we could trust the newest chief to do any better. Fire chiefs just aren’t happy unless there is a fire to fight, these folks say, and if we don’t stop them the whole world will be in flames.
3.) There are still other Joplin residents who say that even though our fire chief started the fire, it is now the problem of the local community. No more Joplin resources should be wasted on it. We’ve spent enough, they say, trying to help these people put out the fire. Heck, even if we put out this fire, someone will just start another one for the simple reason that some people in that community have come to love the flames and the smell of smoke. We can never bring enough bodies and equipment from Joplin to ever put out all the fires, so just let it go. Should this current fire spread to our town, we’ll deal with that when it happens. For now, it is their problem not ours. In fact, from now on we should only worry about fighting our own fires here in Joplin and not concern ourselves with other communities.
4.) But there is another group of Joplinites who say this: Yes, the first fire chief shouldn’t have started the fire in the first place, no matter what his motivation was. And maybe he should have been held to account for his actions, but that would have taken a lot of time and consumed valuable political and civic resources, when there were other more pressing matters that needed our undivided attention at the time. And, yes, we have spent way too much, in terms of human and material resources, putting out fires in that other community, even if our fire chief started the first one. But he did start the first fire. And that has led to others, including the big one going on now. Sure, it is the case that some small group of locals in that other community hate it when they see a firefighter with a “Joplin” patch on his or her uniform. They hate it when they see our big fancy firetrucks pull up and start dousing the fire. They hate it so much they will try to kill our firefighters. But beyond the fact that our previous fire chief did a bad deed in our names, one we simply can’t morally walk away from, we Joplinites have two other good reasons to send help, this group of citizens say.
First, we have some values we claim we live by, including protecting innocent people from harm, when there is something we can do to help. It is clear that many innocents, including women and children, are perishing in the flames and it is equally clear we can help them. In fact, we are the best trained and best equipped to help. To not do so would be to forsake our values. To not do so would mean that many more innocent people would needlessly die or be forced from their homes forever.
Second, we can see the smoke from this fire, even if some of us have to squint to see it. And if we can’t see it, we can faintly smell it. It’s in the air. That means that if this fire isn’t brought under control, it will spread; it will threaten our city. And by the time it is a direct threat to Joplin, it will be so large we will have to devote many more resources to fight it. Right now, all we need to supply is firefighting equipment to the locals in that other community, as well as drop highly-effective flame retardants from the sky. There are those on the ground, most of whom are begging for our help, who are willing to do the dirty work of actually putting out this fire.
This last group of Joplin citizens would ask everyone a question: If you saw a mom holding her little girl out the window of a burning building, smoke engulfing them 100 feet from the ground, would you sit in your fire truck with its 110-foot ladder and watch them die?