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Did you ever wonder what it would be like if the anti-government tea-party crowd actually took over? Well, now you know. Just consider what happened recently in rural Tennessee’s Obion County.

Gene Cranick and his wife panicked when a trash fire spread to their house. Then, just as they were desperately trying to save their house and possessions, firefighters from the city of South Fulton, summoned by a neighbor, rolled up to the scene.

We’re saved, the Cranicks believed. But their hopes were soon dashed when firemen informed them that since their records showed the Cranicks had not paid the annual $75 county fire-protection fee, there was nothing firefighters could or would do for them. Cranick pleaded with firefighters, promising to pay whatever it cost to put out the fire. Too late, said the cold-hearted firemen, after which they merely stood around and watched the house burn to the ground. Mr. and Mrs. Cranick lost everything they owned in the fire, including three dogs and a cat.

That’s bad enough. What makes it even harder to swallow is that the firemen were subsequently defended by the city manager of South Fulton, a spokesperson for the National Association of Counties – and even right-wing Fox talk-show host Glenn Beck.

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Forget “compassion, compassion, compassion, compassion,” Beck told his radio audience. “Those who are just on raw feeling are not going to understand. … What is the $75 for? To keep the firemen available, to keep the fire trucks running, to pay for the fire department to have people employed to put the fire out … as soon as they put out the fire of somebody who didn’t pay the $75, no one will pay the $75.”

So there you have it: rules for life in the land of the tea party – where government can do nothing right, where it’s every man for himself, no compassion, no community spirit. Where everybody must follow the rules, with no exceptions. Where you’d watch your neighbor’s house burn down without even picking up a garden hose to help, and feel righteous about it. For tea partiers, it’s not a big leap from there to repealing health-care reform, getting rid of Social Security, canceling the minimum wage and declaring unemployment benefits unconstitutional.

Poor, misguided Glenn Beck. He’s as wrong about the Tennessee firefighters as he is about most issues. Maybe somebody who makes $32 million a year just can’t understand: It’s not always about the money. There are people in some jobs – police officers, ER doctors, lifeguards and, yes, firefighters – whose essential mission is saving lives and property, without worrying about collecting a fee up front.

He’s also wrong in arguing that allowing someone’s house to burn down is the only way to enforce the law and teach other property owners a lesson: pay the $75 or the same thing could happen to you. Not true. As they say in rural Tennessee, “there’s other ways to skin a cat.”

Nationwide, many counties charge residents a fee to help cover the extra costs associated with providing police or fire protection in rural areas. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But, outside of Obion County, Tenn., the general rule is: In case of emergency, save lives and property first, and worry about the money later. For some counties, the answer is a lien on the owner’s property taxes, a stiff penalty, or billing homeowners for the full cost of county services provided. Anything but looking the other way while their house burns down.

And Beck is remarkably wrong in insisting there should be no compassion when it comes to delivery of government services. Would you let a child drown in the lake because his parents had not paid the annual beach clean-up fee? Apparently, Glenn Beck would. Which is especially strange, coming from a man who wrapped himself in the mantle of Jesus at his Aug. 28 rally on the Washington Mall.

Before commenting on the Tennessee tragedy, and before he leads any more religious revivals anywhere, maybe Beck should ask himself: What would Jesus do? I doubt he would stand by, do nothing, and let his neighbor’s house burn to the ground.

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