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Bandaging Wounds with Dollars

by Kirsten Andersen
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Americans agree that the families of the victims of 9/11 deserve...something.  What that something is, exactly, is a somewhat elusive concept.  What can possibly ease the suffering of those who lost their worlds in the terrorist attacks?  What can be offered to a widow or an orphan in the way of compensation for their loss?

The answer Americans seem to have settled on is money -- and lots of it.  Nearly one billion dollars have been collected by private charities in the wake of the 9/11 atrocities.  Additionally, the federal government yesterday released preliminary details of the September 11th Victims' Compensation Fund.

The Fund, part of the $15 billion airline bailout plan, will pay an average of $1.65 million (tax-free) to each family directly affected by the 9/11 attacks.  So far, details of how individual awards will be determined are vague, but we do know that incomes and earning potentials will be considered, as well as the numbers of surviving dependents.  Any life insurance, pension payments, death benefits or government assistance already received will be deducted from the award, but charitable donations will not.  One other major condition of the Fund is that families accepting payments waive their rights to sue anyone for damages of any kind stemming from 9/11.

The benefits of this plan are obvious: in addition to giving these broken families some immediate, tangible, tax-free relief, the restrictions on lawsuits will ideally limit the damage that trial lawyers can do to the faltering economy by suing airlines, builders, and even the federal government into financial oblivion.  Unfortunately, the moral and constitutional costs of the plan far outweigh the benefits.

The American public has been shockingly generous in the months since that horrible day in mid-September.  People have reached deep into their pockets and sacrificed to contribute hundreds of millions of dollars to the families of 9/11. 

The massive funds Americans have collectively raised should be more than enough to ensure a financially comfortable transition for each and every family torn by terrorism, but the federal government has apparently decided we weren't generous enough.  It has taken our tax dollars and begun allocating them as it sees fit to supplement the charity Americans have already bestowed upon the victims of 9/11.  At this point, it is imperative we stop and evaluate this situation -- not just for the problems it presents today, but for the dangerous precedent it threatens to set for tomorrow.

There is an immediate difficulty in deciding who shall receive what kind of financial compensation for the losses suffered in this tragedy.  To even suggest a number implies one can place a monetary value on human life.  And to suggest different monetary values for different individuals implies one life could be worth more than another.  But the reality is that different families have different financial needs emerging from these losses:  For example, a young, uneducated widow with three small children has different needs than a childless widower with a stable income of his own.  At the same time, different families have varying provisions already in place.  The widow of a corporate vice president with a sizable life insurance policy and hefty stock portfolio is considerably more financially secure than the widow of a service employee with no benefits and two mortgages to pay.  This is not to say that these families do not share equal and horrific pain, but the truth is that they have very different financial needs.

We in America have tried to heal deep emotional wounds by bandaging them with dollars, but all we have done is open new and uglier wounds.  Money is the catalyst for envy, class warfare, and a host of other social ills even on America's best days.  How can we expect a nation under extreme duress to objectively allocate billions of dollars to the victims of 9/11 without inciting these ills and worse? 

Already, greed seems to have gotten the better of some of the victims.  Several widows have appeared on television to declare the proposed financial aid inadequate.  One has already forfeited her right to federal aid in order to sue United Airlines, and more are sure to follow.

What will happen in the future?  Are we as a nation prepared to hand out billions of tax dollars every time we are attacked in this new war?  It will be a tragedy if the government's liberal allocation of tax money to the victims of 9/11 causes Americans to think twice before being so generous with private charities if -- God forbid -- there is ever another large-scale terrorist attack.  In any case, this proposal to add billions of taxpayer dollars to the already-sufficient private charity of the American people is worth a harder look.

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