What Is Life Worth?: The Unprecedented Effort to Compensate the Victims of 9/11
by Kenneth R Feinberg
A review by Alexander Barnes Dryer
Last June, Kenneth Feinberg completed his work as administrator of the September
11 Victim Compensation Fund (VCF). Now, one year later, in What Is Life Worth?
The Unprecedented Effort to Compensate the Victims of 9/11, he offers a compelling
personal account of that work -- a story I read with special interest since my 23-year-old
cousin was among those killed on September 11. Feinberg's book reveals how the
VCF, like the 9/11 Commission, became part of a largely successful government
response to September 11. It is a response whose intelligence and compassion has
often gone unnoticed beneath the rancor of Bush-era politics.
That the VCF would ever be seen as a success once seemed highly doubtful. The program, part of the airline bailout package, was intended to protect the airlines from liability claims by offering injured victims and survivors payment in exchange for an agreement not to sue. It passed with little debate while the wreckage at Ground Zero was still smoldering.
Virtually all the VCF's authority was vested in a "special master" to be appointed by the attorney general, and Feinberg became that special master thanks to some politically fortuitous elements of his resumé. First, as an attorney with a background in mass-settlement cases such as the Agent Orange lawsuit, he was uniquely prepared for the job. Second, as a friend of Senator Chuck Hagel, he had a powerful booster. And finally, as a Democrat who was once Ted Kennedy's chief of staff, he offered the Bush administration both deniability and distance if the VCF flopped.
Feinberg was eager to take the job -- as he notes in the book, he worked pro bono -- but soon faced daunting challenges. Perhaps the most fundamental difficulty came from those who wondered why there was a fund at all. Why not a fund for victims of the first World Trade Center attack, or the Oklahoma City bombing, or the African embassy bombings, or the USS Cole attack? Why not a fund for victims of hit-and-run accidents or street shootings or any of the other countless ways life may be unfairly and unexpectedly cut short?
He also faced a challenge from surviving relatives, who wondered why Congress had required the special master to take into account the economic loss created by each death -- a stipulation that forced him to place a higher dollar value on the lives of high-wage earners than on the lives of poorer victims.
Finally, he faced the challenge of his own personal shortcomings. His book offers only a brief account of his failures in dealing with surviving family members. If one talks to survivors and reviews contemporary accounts of VCF meetings, however, it becomes clear that Feinberg's style was often abrasive -- and not always ideal for the task at hand.
And yet despite these obstacles, Feinberg guided the fund to success. He answered
those who questioned the fund's existence by observing that September 11 was
incomparable to other disasters. The attacks were a national calamity, and the
fund was the national response; he effectively appropriated a line from Jack
Rosenthal, head of The New York Times Foundation, to describe the VCF
as "vengeful philanthropy" intended to send a message to the terrorists.
He minimized the divisive issue of differential payouts by using his discretionary power to lower the compensation paid to the families of the most financially successful victims and boost the amount paid to the families of the least successful. Differences remained, of course, but Feinberg avoided making grossly divergent payments. He took this effort to "narrow the gap" to be one of his fundamental duties.
Perhaps most importantly, Feinberg overcame his widely reported affinity for actuarial tables and business meetings to meet the survivors and learn of the dead. He traveled the country to attend public meetings even though many turned into forums for complaints against him. More significantly, he agreed to meet individually with anyone applying for compensation. As he recounts in the book, these meetings -- he personally attended 900; VCF staffers attended another 600 -- allowed survivors to testify to their loss. That testimony became an unexpected memorial: Feinberg had all the meetings transcribed, and encouraged the participants to pass the transcripts on to their descendants.
In the end, 97 percent of the families eligible to participate in the fund did so; only a few dozen preferred to file suit; and a handful were too devastated to do either. The fund was a success because Feinberg prevailed in his effort to make it about more than money -- which, of course, could never ease the pain suffered by my family or other survivors. If the program had been administered differently, it could have devolved into a radically regressive government program administered by a faraway bureaucrat with no concern for those killed. Instead, it became a way for those left behind to have their grief heard and their loss acknowledged by the government on behalf of its citizens. With all that America has gotten wrong since September 11, it's nice to be reminded of what it has gotten right.
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