When charity starts with the government
3/14/2002 12:00:00 AM - Suzanne Fields
How do you estimate the worth of a life? What is the value of a husband? Of a mother? son? daughter? What price tag do you put on the pain of loss and daily suffering? These are not academic questions to the families of 9-11.
One of the most depressing discussions trailing the 9-11 tragedy is the debate over compensation for the families. Instead of talking about the value of life, we're reduced to putting a price tag on a life, like putting a coroner's tag on a toe. Worth is determined by income lost, and intangible emotions like heartache and suffering.
Grief descends to anger, memory morphs into miserliness and sorrow is reduced to dollars and cents. This gives new meaning to "death be not proud."
Tables of numbers on a ledger are used to balance income against life insurance and lost earning power. Nobody is worth more dead than alive, but death is the endgame for closing accounts, the final indignity of argument over how much a widow or widower, child or parent ought to receive. The funeral procession becomes a long line of people waiting to cash in. The man who pays them must be a paymaster writing checks for mourners, or a bookie consulting the odds to calculate who among his customers won and who lost.
The Dr. No who is in charge of all this is Kenneth Feinberg, a well-spoken man who administers the funds established by Congress for the families of the victims of 9-11. We half expect Feinberg to be a masochist to choose such work, but listening to him, we get the feeling that he's doing his part for the "war effort," like a volunteer delivering clothes and food to families after a flood or a hurricane. He's working pro bono and when he speaks on television or at public meetings it's a voice with firm resolve, a man hiding emotion by sticking to the facts. A recitation of numerical verities does not encourage method acting. No mumbling allowed.
Over the last few weeks, Feinberg has gone from the perceived benefactor in the wings to villain center stage, put on the defensive by families who complain about not getting enough money. "It has nothing to do with greed," he says. "It has everything to do with valuing a loved one." But it doesn't always sound that way. In fact, the whole process is fraught with Orwellian touches as some of the dead are calculated to be more valuable than others. The airlines are the most valuable of all; the legislation regulating the payout is meant to curb lawsuits against the airlines.
Debate is not limited to victims of 9-11. Should the victims of the earlier attack on the World Trade Center be denied compensation simply because the result was less spectacular, and fewer Americans died?
Feinberg retreats to the specifics of the legislation, which defines the recipients as victims of the attacks of 9-11.
Private charities are limited to paying out only to those victims designated by the donors. When the American Red Cross chose to use some of the $900 million contributed to the families of 9-11 money for other unrelated purposes, the public became so enraged that Bernadine Healy, the chief executive of the Red Cross, was forced to resign. The money was to go to 9-11 victims only.
When, in an earlier column, I questioned the way Congress decided to compensate victims, by making charitable donations on behalf of the taxpayer who had nothing to say about it, I was inundated with letters from readers who resented that their generosity was determined by Congress. I presume their congressmen were, too.
"The feel-good compensation by the government without regard to the precedent it is setting is something politicians love to do with other people's money," wrote one reader. "Who is more deserving of compensation for loss of a loved one, a stock broker/bond trader in the WTC, or a soldier/Marine who dies defending this country?" asked another.
Precedent and eligibility continue to dominate the public debate. The limits of compensation dominate the personal one. Average payments are estimated at $1.85 million, costing the government $6 billion. (The airlines got a $15 billion bailout, compensation for lost business.) While everyone of good faith expresses the hope that compensation, for all its inadequacies, will bring "closure," it seems more likely that the compensation, and how it is administered, will only open up more anger.