In December 2016, two teenage boys were charged with starting the fire that ravaged the Gatlinburg area. These kids, ages 15 and 17, were playing with matches on a hiking trail and ended up starting a fire they couldn’t put out.
We all know how the story ends. Fourteen people died. Almost 200 were injured. The damages totaled about a billion dollars. The fire not only destroyed sections of the national park, but people’s homes, businesses and ways of life.
The locals were understandably upset. They wanted to make sure the boys who started this fire were held responsible. Some even talked about trying them as adults instead of minors.
But then, in June of the next year, the charges were dropped.
Many people from Gatlinburg were furious. The community was up in arms. “How do you teach these young adults a lesson by letting them go?” one resident said angrily.
“It's very heartbreaking not being able to have justice,” wrote another survivor.
The weeks that followed were strange and conflicting, with lots of difficult questions about justice. How do we decide who to blame? Where do we point the finger? How do we treat these perpetrators, especially since they’re just kids?
Well, I don’t know if it’s the right place to start, but one way to analyze this situation is through the lens of a concept called “moral luck.”
Moral luck deals with situations where we assign blame or praise to someone based on circumstances that are out of their control. Most commonly, this manifests itself when we blame someone not based on the way they act, but instead on the outcome of the situation.
To illustrate this, allow me to get personal for a moment. I’m going to make a confession: when I was 17 — and please don’t tell the authorities — I ran a red light.
It wasn’t because I was being selfish or malicious. It wasn’t even on purpose. It was just some combination of inexperience, inattentiveness and poor hand-eye coordination that still haunts me to this day. I made a mistake, one that just happened to be against the law.
Fortunately, I didn’t get caught, and I didn’t cause a wreck. I just zoomed through the intersection like the scofflaw that I was. It was despicable, illegal and dangerous, and despite this being the extent of my criminal history, surely you believe that people like me should pay for our crimes.
Maybe you don’t, though, because in my experience as a dangerous fugitive on the run, no one seems to care at all. No one ever recoils in disgust or lashes out in anger when I tell this story. Why? Because the outcome of the situation was fine. There was no wreck. No one got hurt. No harm, no foul.
But what if the outcome was different? What if, instead of passing through the intersection unscathed, I instead ran straight into a minivan, spiraled out of control and caused a gruesome, deadly 10-car pile-up?
Well, we would generally call that situation something else — namely, manslaughter. If my negligence caused death and injury, then I would be expected to answer for the mistake that I made.
But in these two stories, my actions were identical. The things within my control were unchanged. The only difference is that in the second story (the manslaughter one), the circumstances around me meant my poor decision had much worse consequences.
In the first story, we could say that I was “morally lucky” because my bad action didn’t result in a bad outcome.
While I understand that this situation and the Gatlinburg fire are starkly different in a lot of ways, I still think we can use this line of reasoning to analyze what happened in the Smoky Mountains.
First, let’s look at the action: Two teenagers (like myself) did a dumb thing (like I did). They were playing with matches on a hiking trail — an ill-advised yet decidedly teenage-boy thing to do.
Next, look at the outcome: a devastating, deadly fire. But was it just the boys’ matches that caused this to happen?
Sure, they provided the spark, but experts say that a lot of things had to happen for the fire to grow to the size that it did.
The wind was strong that week, gusting as fast as 80 mph, which helped the fire spread quickly. The city and county officials were unprepared to fight and contain a fire of this size, allowing it to reach into the city. The area itself hadn’t seen a fire in a long time, meaning there was plenty of vegetation to burn.
In other words, the boys’ circumstances — not their actions — dictated how the fire grew to such a catastrophe.
These kids are surely not the only ones to make questionable, dangerous decisions in the Smokies. It’s a big park that’s been around for a long time, but somehow, we’ve never seen a disaster quite like this one. In this instance, the two teenagers happened to pair their bad decision with some “morally unlucky” circumstances.
Sure, the stakes were higher here, but the logic remains the same. Because of the circumstances around this disaster, I think it’s only appropriate to treat the two teenagers with some leniency and grace.
I know, that’s all fine and good from the philosophical ivory tower in which I write, but what does this mean for Gatlinburg? How do we console the anger and frustration that people feel? How do we help them deal with the fear and sadness that came with this fire?
Truthfully, I have no idea. If I had the answers to those questions, I’d likely be a best-selling author or a wildly successful megachurch preacher (or both, I suppose).
In tragedies like this, we have a tendency to want to blame someone or something. There’s a certain level of comfort we get from pinning it simply on a few people, but I think it’s an urge that we have to fight.
I don’t know how to help people find something that feels fair. I don’t know how to prevent these fires in the future. I don’t know how give the survivors closure. But I do think we should spend more time talking through these questions and less time trying to figure out who’s to blame.
Evan Newell is a senior majoring in chemical engineering. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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