The fine line between intent and negligence


So, my next door neighbor’s house caught on fire last Friday. In the ensuing excitement, many thoughts crossed my mind. Even at the time, I see how the event is akin to our country’s situation, writ small. In some measure, I am more aware of the fine line between intent and negligence.

Let me get the most important facts out of the way. My neighbors, a nice couple just a few years older than me, are both safe and unharmed. These are very good friends of mine, developed over decades of living next to each other. All else is secondary.

But, it’s in the “all else” that my thoughts wander. The devil, as they say, is in the details. Let me show you…

The blame game

Earlier in the day, my neighbors had servicemen working on their air conditioner. Though a new A/C, it was not operating properly. The men spent some time working on the wires and left their home with the A/C working.

The preliminary evaluation from the Fire Department is that wires above the air handler ignited the insulation and then began burning the wood substructure of the roof. By the time the Fire Department showed up, smoke was pouring through the house. And the FD arrived in about 5 or 6 minutes, according to my neighbor.

Watching the crowd of other residents gathered to observe, my thinking was that if this had been intentionally wired wrong, it would be called arson. I’m not suggesting it was intentional, but it startled me how minute the distinction was.

More to the point, I began to think about the issues facing our country and the question of intent with the current administration. The most frequent defense offered to their many affronts is that they are “too new” to politics and thus their misdeeds are mere negligence, not intentional criminal acts.

And yet, as I watched my neighbors forlornly looking at their now unlivable home, it made me realize that the damage created by a negligent act is just as traumatic as an intentional one. No one would want a “too new” or incompetent person wiring their home. It is no less discomfiting to have that lack of skill “wiring” our country.

Mi case es su casa

My home and my neighbors’ are part of a 5-unit blocks. So, my next door neighbors are literally next wall neighbors. As such, the FD needed to go into my house to check for potential hot spots. Fortunately, there was no spreading at that point.

Later that night, having dropped off my neighbors at a hotel, I went to sleep in a slightly smelly home. Twice during the night I woke up, close to vomiting. It became clear to me that I probably should have also stayed overnight somewhere else.

Smoke (and particulate matter) obviously made it from their home to mine. It was unlikely that was a healthy living area to be breathing in that evening. The next day, I opened all the doors and turned on all the fans to clear the home.

The parallel to our larger dilemma is the same. Though it may appear to some factions of America that there is only danger to “the other side”, we all live, effectively, next door to each other.

The damage being done in certain areas of our country (ecological, financial, medical, etc.) will eventually seep into all areas of our lives just like smoke permeating my house from my neighbors’. It’s inevitable and it’s dangerous to assume the only people being affected are “others”.

This land is my land, this land is your land

During the evening, while we were watching the FD work to save the home, several people from outside the area parked at the end of the block to see what was going on. There was no way to drive into the street, as 5 fire trucks, an emergency vehicle and the Chief’s SUV dominated the road.

One woman, with two young girls in tow, came up the street to stand near us. After some short introductions, she revealed she was moving into the house across the street from my neighbors.

When asked whether she was renting or buying, she replied she was renting but wanted to buy it. Upon hearing what happened to my neighbors house, she said she might reconsider. She worried all the houses might have faulty construction.

While I was able to mollify those fears somewhat, I once again thought of the parallels to our nation. This woman was not Hispanic. She was not Muslim. She was not Black. Just plain old check the box Caucasian.

And, the lesson echoed here is that people fool themselves if they think the 5-alarm fire that rages from the administration’s war on immigration is only going to affect “bad hombres”.

There are going to be plenty of people who will look at America with doubt and, yes, some fear. Wondering, if the land of the free and home of the brave has taken down its welcome sign. Maybe some Americans have forgotten (or choose to ignore) these prescient words:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me

At some point, perhaps already, people around the world are going to wonder if America cares about anyone other than themselves. The land of the self-centered and home of the unconcerned?

To sleep perchance to die

Here is a startling and chilling fact: had the incident occurred a few hours later, my neighbors and I would have been asleep.

Would the houses have burned down? Would we have asphyxiated? Really can’t say. Really don’t want to imagine.

But, that fine line between intent and negligence changes arson to murder (not much nicer than manslaughter, mind you).

Similarly, to people who want to just hold their breath and look away while the substructure of our country is eroded or destroyed outright, well, you may find that your democracy died in your sleep.

Choked by negligence or murdered by intent, that’s what investigators are responsible for finding out.

For us, just trying to stay alive and live a peaceful life in our homes, we still need to pay attention to the “little things”.

“Where there’s smoke, there’s fire” is said so frequently because it’s true. Standing outside my neighbors’ house, watching the smoke flooding from the building made me think about our country.

Inside the home, brave men were working to tear out damage caused by incompetence. Ultimately, they managed to save what they could and some foundation remained. But, lives are traumatized and dispossessed simply for putting trust in the wrong people.

Where exactly does that fine line between intent and negligence lie? No one is suggesting such motivations behind the servicemen working on my neighbors’ home. But the damage to the home and the lives of those no longer able to live in it remains.

The time it will take to repair that damage is significant for a home. It is monstrous for a nation. Intentional or negligent matters to those charged with enforcing the law and protecting our citizenry.

For the rest of us, it would be wise to be alert to that smoke you might smell rising from our fragile democracy. So as not to be caught sleeping should it turn into an all-out fire.

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