- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 2, 2002

Last Thursday evening, seven New Yorkers were killed when an elderly delivery man accidentally drove his van into a crowded crosswalk at Herald Square. Both Friday's and Saturday's local papers were full of the incident as heartbreaking details about the victims came rushing from their kin. There was the father-to-be, whose pregnant wife was hospitalized due to the shock of her husband's death; the hard-working teen-ager from Kiev whose neighbors have taken up a collection to help pay for his funeral; the beloved grandfather of nine; the devoted mother of three …
The tragic list goes on, only to bump up against the news that even before an entire day had elapsed since the accident, "Some families are already lining up to file suit in the crash," the New York Post reported. One family had already retained the services of Benedict P. Morelli, "known for representing former Wall Street whiz kid Christian Curry." Mr. Morelli, the newspaper said, "is expected to seek in the neighborhood of $25 million."
Grief is rarely, if ever, an easily managed emotion, and it demands and deserves a special tolerance. In our times, however, as mourning the dead increasingly goes hand and hand with legal action and monetary compensation, it presents a different face than perhaps we are used to. This new face is certain to become quite familiar now, due to the mass loss and mass grieving caused, not, of course, by a street-corner crash, but by the terrorist attacks of September 11.
When Congress created the Victim Compensation Fund just 10 days after the attacks, it established a mechanism by which taxpayers, not defendants, would pay compensation to the families of the attack victims so long as the survivors agreed to stay out of court. This was a move, made at a time of great national anxiety, guaranteed to raise a slew of difficult, if interesting, questions. Why, for example, didn't the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing receive such largesse? Was this a legitimate use of $5 billion to $7 billion in taxpayer money? What about victims of street-corner crashes or crime or avalanches should their families' dislocation receive federal attention? Not too surprisingly, such questions not only went unanswered, they went unasked. Attorney General John Ashcroft subsequently appointed Kenneth R. Feinberg "special master" of the federal fund, charging Mr. Feinberg with devising a formula by which each victim's monetary worth could be calculated another nettlesome subject.
It's little wonder that both the fund and Mr. Feinberg's formula, recently unveiled, are already drawing more jeers than cheers. There's the father who lost a 26-year-old son, an apprentice electrician, on September 11, who pounded his dining-room table while complaining about the inequities of the guidelines that grant monies beyond a $250,000 minimum according to age, salary and number of dependents. "They should just give everyone the same slice of cheese," he told Newsweek. (On learning that his family would likely receive $670,000 he said, "Maybe I'll take it.") There is the widow who stands to receive about $1.5 million for the loss of her stockbroker-husband. She told the New York Daily News that the formula was "sick," adding, "I'm ready to throw up." There is the pricey lawyer, who, bemoaning the government's terms and limits, told Newsweek that the fund formula "is forcing a change in [his wealthy clients] lifestyle."
The fire is out at Ground Zero, the air is clear, but emotions remain angry, raw and sometimes ugly. One hopes that one day soon the government's best efforts to help the survivors of September 11 will not be misconstrued as a magical solution to a colossal human tragedy.


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