- The Washington Times - Friday, August 17, 2007

“Small potatoes” is how the man with the task of parceling out $7.7 million from a private compensation fund for families of the 32 victims of the Virginia Tech massacre described the paltry $180,000 each will receive.

Small potatoes, indeed. What price can you place on a life, any life, especially one so young and promising, killed at random by a demented madman?

“I hope it proves [families] a thimble of assistance in moving forward,” said Kenneth R. Feinberg, a Bethesda lawyer and administrator of the Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund, compiled from private donations from more than 20,000 after the April 16 bloodbath, in an impassioned comment on News Channel 8.

“Anyone who thinks this is a valid substitute for the losses vastly overestimates compensation as a surrogate” for losing a loved one, said Mr. Feinberg in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Mr. Feinberg, who was the special master of the billions dispersed from the September 11th Victims Compensation Fund, said he was limited in what he could do by the amount of money available. In the past few weeks, however, the fund received an additional $250,000 in donations, and will remain open until the end of the year.

Even so, there are those who think victims of violent crimes such as those at Virginia Tech, the scene of the worst mass murder by a single gunman in American history, should not be entitled to compensation by the government. Perhaps not, if that government and its agents are not culpable. Of that possible responsibility, we are not yet certain.

Take particular note that proceeds from this well-meaning private fund do not let the state off the hook. Its liability is still in question. Survivors who accept this money do not give up their right to seek further legal remedies or sanctions from any responsible parties.

“We are hopeful this effort can continue the healing process for those most grievously touched by the April 16 tragedy,” Virginia Tech President Charles W. Steger said. Virginia Tech is barred from contributing to the private fund, according to the Times-Dispatch report. As for just compensation from the state and the university, a survivors” fund has yet to be established, if there is to be one at all.

Vincent Bove, a New Jersey security specialist who represents seven victims’ families, told the Times-Dispatch that getting money was never the families” priority.

“They”ve been devastated by this, financially and emotionally, and [money] does have its place,” Mr. Bove said. “But the families” focus has always been on accountability, truthfulness and consequences. They want the individuals and the administration who have displayed a lack of preparedness and made all the wrong decisions to be held accountable. They want there to be consequences.”

Already, the families were wrongfully denied a seat on the governor”s panel investigating the murders and the university and local law enforcement”s possible culpability in a delayed response to the first two murders two hours earlier in a dormitory. This omission alone lends itself to the unhealthy perception, real or not, of a possible coverup.

Among the 26 wounded victims, those hospitalized more than 10 days will receive $90,000. Those hospitalized three to nine days will receive $40,000. All also are eligible for free tuition. Not only is the compensation amount lacking, but the gradation system smacks of a cheesy payment plan that leaves a bad aftertaste. It is understandable that the families suggested that those who lost a love one received the greatest compensation.

However, it is more than a bit disconcerting to think that the amount of compensation is commensurate with the length of stay in a hospital or the number and extent of body parts lost or limping.

Students in the second-floor classrooms in Norris Hall on that infamous morning, but uninjured by gunman Seung-hui Cho, can choose between free tuition or a cash payout of $10,000.

Other students on campus that morning get zilch, even though they were traumatized, too.

To add insult to injury, the eligible survivors are being rushed to make a decision about what form of compensation, if any, they will accept by Sept. 15. That deadline should be extended.

Again, the families” decision is required long before they will have enough information from the ongoing investigations to determine whether to pursue legal remedies from the state or the state”s agent, the university.

“How much money can we give the families of the dead and still have money left over to make a meaningful financial contribution to the others?” Mr. Feinberg asked on WWBT-TV. He also suggested that the payment is fair but rough justice.

As Mr. Feinberg noted, no amount of money is likely to assuage the grief the families feel, certainly not “small potatoes.”



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