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Jewish World Review Jan. 18, 2002 / 5 Shevat, 5762

Diana West

Diana West
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Consumer Reports

How much is enough? -- CHERI SPARACIO lost her husband, Thomas, in the south tower of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. Mrs. Sparacio, 37, has two young children and is expecting her third. Her grief, like that of thousands of families recently shattered by terrorism, is an emotion the rest of us empathize with, surely, but fail to comprehend at its most private and painful source.

Her grievance against the U.S. government, though, is a matter of public record, and, as such, is more transparent. Along with 40 other victims of the September attacks, Sparacio recently joined several members of Congress at a New York City news conference to decry the federal Victim Compensation Fund. This fund, unique in American history, was established by Congress in September to "compensate" the survivors of those lost on Sept. 11 using $5 billion to $7 billion of taxpayer money, the idea being that they would be fairly and quickly paid without going to court.

The survivors' complaint? Some say the cash awards, expected to average $1.6 million according to the formula devised by the fund's special master Kenneth Feinberg, are plain stingy. "I'd end up with an amount that I'd have to be sick to take," Sparacio told the New York Daily News. "The money would not secure my future or my children's futures."

Such harsh comments tend to be overlooked these days, or to elicit more or less philosophical conjecture about the difficulties in calculating a life's worth. But that's all beside the point. The real question is, did the government -- and by extension, the taxpayers -- set out to "secure" anyone's future? Is that even possible? Should it be?

"On September 11, we had thousands of good people who were murdered ... by Osama bin Laden," said Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.). "It would be terrible if the families of those victims were victimized again by the regulations that are being enacted by the special master." Victimized again? "We're talking about a $250,000 cap," said Rep. Felix Grucci (R-N.Y.), referring to fund's "pain and suffering" award -- more, by the way, than benefits paid to families of soldiers killed in the line of duty. "You could slip and fall on the sidewalk as you walk out of here -- and I'm not suggesting that anybody do that -- but probably earn more on a slip-and-fall claim than these people will get for losing their loved ones."

Some of the time, at least, the old "slip-and-fall claim" -- slippery though it may be when some poor schmo has to take the fall -- involves a party guilty of negligence. Who, besides Osama bin Laden, is guilty here -- the United States government? That would seem to be the implication of the federal fund. Is the government also culpable, then, for anthrax attacks that have taken three lives? Their next-of-kin will receive no federal largesse. The survivors of the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing weren't "compensated" by a special fund, either. Neither were the survivors of those killed in the first World Trade Center bombing; nor were the survivors of those Americans killed when Pan Am Flight 103 was blown up over Lockerbie, Scotland. What about the Unabomber's victims? And dare anyone ask about victims of future acts of terrorism?

Will the Victim Compensation Fund become a permanent entitlement?

To question the government's role is not to suggest the afflicted receive nothing. A generous nation has already donated more than $1.6 billion to charitable organizations to aid the grieving survivors of the roughly 3,000 people killed in the attacks. Should such a sum, along with varying degrees of assistance offered by the organizations hit in the attacks and two years of government-granted tax amnesty, be designated "enough"? Of course not. That is, nothing is "enough" to patch the holes left by the grievous human toll. But whether it is government's place to fill the void -- to "secure" the victims' futures -- is another question.

Thomas Connor lost a relative in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. He also lost his father in the FALN bombing of New York City's Fraunces Tavern in 1975. Writing in The Wall Street Journal recently, he suggested that rather than attempting to provide "compensation" for all lives lost, the government consider a more selective measure: providing "compassionate aid" to families who now find themselves in financial difficulties. Such a program would be designed to tide people over, not secure anyone's future -- and would seem to be the best outlet for the government's good intentions.

JWR contributor Diana West is a columnist and editorial writer for the Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2001, Diana West