Money and mourninig at ground zero

Posted: Jan 28, 2002 12:00 AM
A not-so-quiet backlash is emerging over how victims of Sept. 11 should be compensated for their losses. It may be "emotionally incorrect" as grief and mourning continue for those families suffering loss, but it's unfair to call the debate cold and uncaring. It's about the larger issue of how we give away taxpayer money. The backlash was ignited when David R. Henderson, an economist and research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford, wrote an article arguing that the U.S. government should not pay out taxpayer money to the families of Sept. 11. Whether federal money should be distributed equally to families or according to a complex financial formula with considerations for previous earnings, he argued, blurs the issue and asks the wrong questions. "One of a free society's greatest strengths," he wrote in the Christian Science Monitor, "is that each of us is free to decide which causes we will support and in which ways to support them." Americans rushed to volunteer time on behalf of victims' families at Ground Zero and at the Pentagon, cleaning up the rubble, handling phones at desks coordinating efforts to identify the missing. Many gave blood or volunteered to care for children and the elderly. Others donated food and clothing, and still others sent money from bank accounts large and small. Professor Henderson's point is that our generosity rests on our freedom and when the government takes over, personal responsibility is diluted and diminished. If this debate had flourished last month during the Christmas season, we'd be scapegoating Ebenezer Scrooge, but the argument has become more compelling as public squabbling over who gets what, when and why receives increasing attention in the newspapers and on the TV shout shows. Families in Oklahoma City have grown loud and angry not because the government opened its largesse to the victims of the twin towers and the Pentagon, but because they were not included. A domestic terrorist can be as deadly as an Arab terrorist. Advocates for victims of other tragedies are voicing resentment toward federal favoritism, too. Aren't disasters equal-opportunity catastrophes? Families of victims of Sept. 11, who are scheduled to receive federal money, met to protest that the distributions don't reflect actual losses in earnings, pain and suffering. Making matters worse, taking the money requires them to waive their right to bring lawsuits later. They argue that the regulations create a "double victimization. "The family of a married father with three children whose annual income was $130,000, killed on Sept. 11, might be eligible for a base award of $2.4 million, but with deductions from various insurance policies and Social Security it's possible that his family would receive no federal compensation at all," according to an estimate in The Wall Street Journal. There's no way to put a price on the death of a loved one, of course, or to calculate the actual damages to a family who lost a mother father, sister, brother. The statistical particulars confuse grief with the accountants' numbers. Critics of the taxpayer money argue that the very process inevitably creates conflicts of interest between grief and greed. The debate is both philosophical and political and goes to the heart of our definition of charity. A definition might start with St. Paul's letter to the early Christians at Corinth: "Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up." Most Bible scholars translate Paul's use of the word "charity" as "love," and if charity and love are not the same thing, they're close. That's why government bureaucrats acting on government regulations get into trouble when (begin ital) they select (begin ital) our charity. Americans are the most generous people in the world. As soon as we read in the newspapers or see a television news account of an earthquake, tornado or volcano eruption anywhere in the world, we rush to write a check, bundle up (good) old clothes or box up a supply of canned goods. It makes little difference whether the disaster is in Toledo, Topeka or Timbuktu. So it was with Sept. 11. But government giveaways invariably diminish private giving. Whose generosity is this, anyway? The plain citizens who put it in the public till? The politicians who voted for it? The administrators who dispense it? It certainly doesn't reflect the voice of the individual taxpayer. Add to this debate churlish arguments over whether "domestic partners" and illegal aliens should share in the charity and pretty soon we've got an indigestible witches' brew, mixing mourning and money. How this works out will require the power of charity - or love - as described by St. Paul. Charity, he told the Corinthians, "beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Charity never faileth."