Should Tennessee Firemen Have Let the House Burn?

Some conservatives are praising a bunch of rural Tennessee firemen for letting a house burn down. But what does it say about our country?

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It was one of the stranger news stories in a long time — and one of the most polarizing. Firefighters in rural Tennessee looked on as a house burned because the family who lived in it had not paid the $75 annual fire-protection fee. Their home was destroyed — along with three puppies that were inside.

What is more striking than the story itself is the debate it has set off, which has been raging now for more than a week. While the firefighters have come in for considerable criticism, a surprising number of commentators have come to their defense — and lashed out at the family that lost their home.

Yet underlying the Tennessee fire debate is something much more serious and fundamental than the the back-and-forth, talking head battles about who was more at fault in this incident. At a time when lots of Americans are debating who should have citizenship, the case of Gene and Paulette Cranicks' burnt-down house hints at the more profound issue of what that citizenship should mean.

The Cranicks live in Obion County, Tennessee, outside of the city limits. That means they do not automatically get fire service — they have to pay a special fee. The family says it has paid the fee in the past, but claims they simply forgot about it this year.

When the Cranicks' home caught on fire, the firefighters showed up — but only to help out a neighbor, whose property was in the fire's path, who had paid the fire fee. Gene Cranick says he offered on the spot to pay whatever it took to put out the fire, but the firefighters refused. It might seem that firefighters would have a legal duty to put out a fire. But in this case, the firefighters did not work for the Cranicks' county — they worked for a nearby city. Their position was that they had no more obligation to put out the fire than New Jersey firemen would have to answer a call from New York.

Many observers were quick to find in the Cranicks' burning house a parable for the increasingly harsh times in which we live. But some conservatives and libertarians had a different reaction to the Cranicks' story: it actually gave them hope.

Glenn Beck, the conservative radio and television host, attracted the most attention. To prevent people from "sponging off" of their neighbors, he insisted, "we are going to have to have these kinds of things." While Beck defended the firefighters, an on-air sidekick made fun of Mr. Cranick for trying to get the fire put out — and mocked his southern accent.

On conservative blogs, many of the commenters echoed Beck's views. The loss of the home to fire "WAS INDEED a bad situation (for the homeowner — not for anyone else)," one poster declared on RedState, a right-leaning website. Jonah Goldberg, writing in National Review Online, said that letting the home burn was "sad," but he argued that it would "probably save more houses over the long haul" since people will now have a strong incentive to pay their fees. Another writer on the same site was harsher, indicting people like the Cranicks as "jerks, freeloaders, and ingrates."

After the fire, Paulette Cranick said that she is not angry at the firefighters. "You can't blame them if they have to do what the boss says to do," she told the Associated Press. It is a generous attitude, and fundamentally the right one: this is a failure of government policy, not of individual employees.

There is a major debate underway today about what citizenship should mean — and what you should get just for being an American. It's not, of course, a new debate. During the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt expanded what citizens got through the New Deal: he created emergency assistance programs so people would not starve, and minimum wage and maximum hours laws to protect workers from the worst excesses of the free market.

Today, there are politicians and commentators who want to push in the other direction: to water citizenship down, and turn Americans into mere customers. In this view, you should get things — including basics like fire service — not as a right of citizenship, but as a privilege with a price.

These are large national issues, but they are also questions that local governments are answering individually. Obion County, where the Cranicks live, has looked at a variety of ways of paying for fire services. If it put a small tax on electric meters, or simply raised the property tax modestly, it could do away with the fire fee entirely.

That is the right way to go. Living in a county — or city, or town — should bring with it a minimal level of rights that don't depend on whether your check made it in the mail. Not luxuries, not frills — but things like having the flames put out when your house is on fire.

Cohen, a lawyer, is a former TIME writer and a former member of the New York Times editorial board. Case Study, his legal column for TIME.com, appears every Wednesday.