Paying 9/11 Families For Their Grief

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How can we place a price tag on grief?

That's the elephant in the living room — the glaringly obvious question no one wants to ask out loud — as the government finalizes plans for payments to families of the victims of the September 11th terror attacks.

It's not something most people are anxious to ponder in public, partly because no one wants to sound insensitive, but also because there's a weird sense of survivors' guilt among those of us who didn't lose anyone on that horrible day. We can't imagine the agony of the bereaved, the logic goes, and so we shouldn't argue with the compensation.

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Ill-advised and unpopular as it may be, I'm going to venture just such an argument. In any tragedy, we do what we can, and one way we help the families of the victims is to give them money. But are we doing this fairly?

First, the numbers

Here's where the payment plan stands now: Each family gets $250,000 for a lost loved one, and $50,000 extra for every dependent left behind. Then, thanks to taxpayer contributions and some astoundingly generous charitable donations, families of the attack victims will get an average of $1.65 million in additional awards. That's where the disparities creep in.

The figures for these range anywhere from $300,000 to about $4 million — the former sum to survivors of a single, older, low-income worker and the latter to the family of a young, married person who earned more than $175,000 per year. Total cost to taxpayers: $6 billion. And that's above and beyond the nearly $1.5 billion collected via fundraisers and charity drives in the wake of the attacks.

There are two (equally frustrating) discrepancies at issue here: One, the fact that some survivors of the September 11th attacks stand to collect hundreds of times what others will receive. Why is the life of a young bond trader worth $3.5 million while the life of a secretary is worth just $300,000? "I cannot make those distinctions and I will not make those distinctions," says Kenneth Feinberg, the man with the unenviable task of divvying up the Victim Compensation Fund. "Every life is valuable. I will not play Solomon." Luckily, he doesn't have to — there is nothing Solomonic about a decision to treat people fairly, regardless of their station in life.

The obvious question: What about earning potential? Why should the family of a person making $25,000 a year be awarded the same amount as survivors of someone pulling in half a million on an upward trajectory? The answer to that one's easy. Because we have no way of knowing who was going to be making what later in their lives — the guy working night shifts as a janitor could have been going to law school during the day, and the vice president on the 55th floor could have been fired two weeks after the terror attacks. The compensation shouldn't be about salaries — in and of themselves a totally arbitrary measure of a person's worth — and without that neat categorization, there is no calculus to determine who should get what. So give everyone precisely the same amount.

And what about everyone else?

The second disparity is that we are so eager to hand money to the families of those who lost their lives in this tragedy — while other families suffer without recourse after more private, but no less painful, losses. The family of a guy who washed dishes at Windows on the World will get close to half a million dollars in aid, while the family of a guy who washed dishes at the local diner before being stabbed to death in a mugging gets absolutely nothing. Why? Each death is absolutely random, and each family will weep in the same way.

Terrorism, it's argued, is political, and politics are a public concern. Therefore, victims of terrorism must be provided for from the public coffers. Fair enough. So why did the families of those who died in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing receive just $100,000 in federal aid and charity? Was that terrorist attack any less horrifying than what happened last September? Did the people who died there somehow mean less to their communities, their families?

It's not that I don't think the families of 9/11 should be taken care of. They certainly should. It's just that I don't believe in creating instant wealth out of tragedy — and I don't agree with the government's decision to grant such dissimilar awards to families who suffered the same horrible fate. Making the payments the same for each and every family would allow all the families to go on without worrying about their welfare. And it might even inspire some of them to donate a few dollars to others who have also lost loved ones — but whose losses have gone unnoticed and unrelieved.