John MacMurray


On the Road to Justice

I live just 30 minutes outside of Portland, OR. Not far from where presently, there is a huge fire raging. I am also a nature photographer by vocation and this fire happens to be in the Columbia River Gorge, one of the most naturally beautiful and scenic areas in all of the United States. Consequently, I am deeply saddened by the destruction. And, I am angry…

Allegedly, some teenagers shooting fireworks in an incredibly dry forest started the fire. It has been reported that they were admonished and warned, which they subsequently laughed off and then continued with their momentary excitement with the fireworks.

As of now, 9/8/17 at 5:00pm PDT, the fire is 7% contained and encompasses over 33,000 acres of pristine land. Homes have been destroyed, businesses lost, and commerce derailed – I-84, a major Interstate has been closed along with the rail line connecting Portland with all points east. The economic impact will be enormous.

But for our community here in the Northwest it goes deeper than that. For many of us, we feel the destruction of the Gorge personally. We have encountered beauty there and we have been forever changed because of it.

So, it’s not surprising that this has instigated a lot of conversation about justice and punishment. Over the past few days I have observed that anger, almost visceral, has been the most common emotion for our community. And because there were persons who are responsible for causing the fire that now rages, that anger has been aimed directly at the perpetrators.

I want to be clear, I think we should feel anger toward what they have done and even the alleged attitude with which they did it. How can we not? Something precious was stolen from us. It is a blow to our collective psyche.

Usually, anger has a companion in tow – punishment. And many, many people have called for severe punishment of these young boys, even calling for their parents to be punished as well.

But is punishment what these young men need? Or is it what WE need to satisfy some deep desire for them to feel our pain? Punishment would be warranted if it helped them learn the value of what they so carelessly destroyed. But punishing them because we feel anger toward them is petty, vindictive, and appeals to something in us that I don’t think is very healthy.

There are some pretty big questions that loom here… What is the goal of justice? And can punishment contribute to realizing justice’ goal? Worthy questions but not the aim of this blog.

However, a few thoughts on punishment, since that is what everyone is crying out for.

Punishment does not necessarily lead to learning responsibility. Nor will it bring the Gorge back. It will not stop the fire. It will not change the attitude or behavior of the persons responsible. It may not even deter someone else from doing the same thing.

Then why punish?

Should there be consequence to their actions? Yes. Absolutely. Here are some possibilities:

  • Have them sit and listen to those who lost their homes and all that was in them – so that they might feel their loss and pain.

  • Have them help rebuild those homes.

  • Have them help with the cleanup, with the inevitable mudslides and erosion that will occur.

  • Have them help in the repairing of the roads and structures that have been destroyed or damaged.

  • Have them help the rebuilding of the trail system.

  • Have them go to counseling.

Are these not better than simply punishing these young men?

Eventually, all our outrage will subside and we will forget…
But I hope not.

For there are those who have lost far more than a favorite place to hike. For many, their lives have been irrevocably changed.

I hope we will help them rebuild – their jobs, their homes, their lives.

I hope that we will be there to volunteer our hands, skills and money.

I hope we will volunteer to rebuild the trails and plant the trees that will speed the recovery of this special place.

I hope I can meet these young men who started all this as we work side by side for the restoration of the Gorge.

For now, our prayers are with those who are fighting the fire and for those who have lost their homes. May we all volunteer now to help with whatever is needed for those affected and those fighting the fire.

John MacMurray