Victims' Fund Not Meant To Compensate For Loss Of Life

25 January 2002

By Stentor Danielson

The public comment period for the Victims’ Compensation Fund established by Congress for people affected by the September 11 terrorist attacks ended this past Tuesday. The Victims Compensation Fund is meant to offer monetary awards to victims and their families in lieu of lawsuits against airlines, the right to which victims give up when they accept compensation from the Fund.

The Fund was set up for two reasons. First, it was meant as a gesture of compassion to people who lost loved ones in the attacks. Second, it was meant to shield the already struggling airlines from crippling lawsuits from victims.

Much of the commentary about the Victims’ Compensation Fund has focused on the question of the value of a human life. One letter received during the public comment period said, "Now imagine you know your child is in one of those buildings as you watch them tumble to the ground. ... What is just compensation for me for this?" All seem to reach the same answer -- no dollar value can be put on it. But from there they seem to draw the erroneous conclusion that therefore some equal, finite number of dollars should be paid to the families of the victims.

Often, these arguments are used to try to raise the value of the compensation. However, the only truly fair compensation would be an infinite number of dollars. Rich as the U.S. is, it does not have infinite dollars in its treasury. Therefore, the idea that the fund is in some way reimbursing families for the loss of their loved ones is untenable.

Commentators often compare the fund to the damages awarded by courts -- a fair instinct, as the Fund is in some ways a substitute for litigation against the airlines. However, the comparison falls short on the key issue of culpability.

I find it absurd to hold the airlines responsible in any more than the smallest respect for the tragedies of September 11. None but the most paranoid among us would have said, on September 10, that box cutters should be banned from planes. I flew to Boulder, Colorado; Normal, Illinois and even Australia with a box cutter in my pocket and none of the security personnel I encountered looked twice at what everyone considered a harmless tool. The occasional breach of security is the price that we pay to avoid living in a police state. Yet, victims who forgo the Fund and file lawsuits will be essentially asking the court to make the airlines pay out until they are compensated for the priceless lives lost four and a half months ago (or as near as they can given the cap Congress put on airline liability).

The fault for the deaths on September 11 does not lie with the airlines, whose seemingly reasonable security guidelines were taken advantage of. It lies with Mohammed Atta and his conspirators, and ultimately with Osama bin Laden and the other leaders of al-Qaida. The problem is, these men are not available to pay the compensation they owe -- and in the case of the hijackers, they never will be. This makes the unfulfilled desire for justice seize on another source of satisfaction. The airlines are vulnerable because they were involved in the attacks. The U.S. government is vulnerable because, through the Victims Compensation Fund, it has offered to make some kind of payment.

The U.S. government offered no compensation to the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing, or the bombings of U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. It offers no compensation to the loved ones of people murdered every day in crimes equally senseless. In all of these cases, people died unfortunate deaths. But in none of them was the U.S. government any more culpable than in the events of September 11. The U.S. government has no duty to compensate the victims of any crime it does not commit. Therefore we should not look at the payments as making up for the lives lost.

So why should the government offer this compensation? The government’s duty is to ensure the health of the society it governs. The Fund achieves this goal in two ways. The first is psychological. The public needs to feel that the victims have not been forsaken, that society will not simply accept an injustice, but will align itself against that injustice. To this end, the Fund gives to victims where terrorists took away. It gives not in compensation for the loss but in defiance of it.

The second reason is economic. In this sense, the Victims Compensation Fund is much more like the disaster relief funds that would be issued after a devastating hurricane or flood. An unpredictable, externally imposed cataclysm can destabilize society. But the government is able, by virtue of governing areas unaffected by the disaster, to direct money to fill the holes left by capital, resources, and labor that were destroyed.

It is in this sense that it is possible to think about numbers. The World Trade Center was a place of business, so it is safe to assume that most of the families affected by the attack have lost a significant wage earner. The government cannot and should not replace those lost, but it is in the interests of society that the survivors’ transition from life with those killed to life without should be smoothed. For most unexpected deaths, we rely on the families’ own savings and insurance. But with so many people killed so suddenly, the potential economic and social disruption is great enough, and the events too difficult to have planned for, that outside assistance is necessary.

In this light, a model more like that used to distribute charitable donations to those affected by the Oklahoma City bombings is in order. These funds were distributed based on need, not the degree to which a victim "deserved" payment or in compensation for the damage done.

This need-based ethic was the intent, though not necessarily the effect, of two of the most controversial rules for the distribution of money from the Fund. First is the fact that families that lost higher earners would be compensated more than families of low earners. In a strictly economic sense, richer families did lose more. The rule feels wrong to many, because the rich victims’ lives weren’t worth more. But the fund is covering economic losses, not reimbursing families for lost lives.

The second controversial provision stipulates that awards will be lowered for families that receive benefits from life insurance plans or pensions. Families complain that this penalizes those who planned ahead. The idea that receiving a smaller gift is a penalty comes from the mistaken notion that the government owes the families something. The government does not owe the families anything. It is simply covering the economic needs of the families, which are greater in the case of those families with no other sources of revenue.

No price tag can be put on a human life. Therefore, the Victims Compensation Fund established for those affected by September 11 should not seek to make its payments accord with some standard of the value of a life. And the public should stop looking at the payments handed out by the fund as compensating in any way for the lives lost.

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