• What is a life worth?
     | September 10,2005

    AUSTIN, Texas I'm reluctant to tell Kenneth Feinberg's story, or share his perspective, so close to the anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001. Tomorrow, it is better for our attention to be elsewhere. It's more appropriate to remember the savage strikes and the senseless deaths, to acknowledge so many acts of selflessness and courage that define that eerie, sun-splashed morning of four years ago.

    Yet Feinberg's story, which was precipitated by the events of Sept. 11, belongs to all the days on the calendar since that terrible date, belongs to any day that we consider loss and grief, the fragility of life, the essential worth of our lives. It belongs to today, as we witness the massive suffering that Hurricane Katrina inflicted.

    How does one assess the value of a human life? This is the framing question of Feinberg's "What is Life Worth?: The Unprecedented Effort to Compensate Victims of 9/11," published by Public Affairs books earlier this summer. The author has extraordinary insight, as he was the chief administrator of the September 11 Victims Compensation Fund.

    To be precise: Feinberg was known as the "Special Master" of the fund, a title that summons all manner of lordly (and apt) connotations. It was Feinberg's job, as defined by then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, to calculate the financial "value" of each life lost in the terrorist attacks and then decide which relatives and friends of the 2,973 victims would receive monetary compensation. In the end, he approved the distribution of $6 billion to families of deceased victims. Nothing like this had ever been done in American history. It was an exhausting job. What's more, it was a job for which Feinberg volunteered, one he insisted that he perform without pay.

    "In a time of national emergency and grief, I thought it would be unseemly and inappropriate to seek compensation," Feinberg says in his book. Plus, "I guessed that some families would accuse me of earning 'blood money' on the backs of the dead and injured. Accepting the attorney general's assignment pro bono would preclude such criticism."

    "What is life worth?" It's an abstract question, inviting any number of philosophical responses. Yet Feinberg did not come to the job of Special Master as that kind of man. He was a corporate lawyer, more problem-solver than ruminative spirit, guided by the certain stars of doctrine and the rule of law. The beauty of his book, in many ways, is in how our Man of Rules a logical fellow with a sound mathematical formula for every circumstance comes to grips with the complex, abstract dilemmas of his job.

    One of the biggest challenges: The Victims Compensation Fund required Feinberg to take into account "economic loss" as one of the three factors in calculating financial compensation. He took this to mean that the family of a 35-year-old stockbroker with a million-dollar annual salary would be entitled to a greater compensatory "award" than a $20,000-a-year busboy who perished in the Windows of the World restaurant, or the firefighter who sacrificed his life trying to save them both.

    "Many perceived the formulas as unfair because they valued one life more than another," Feinberg writes. This struck some as downright un-American: What about the notions of equal protection and egalitarianism and democracy?

    "It may be that everybody should get the same amount of money under this program, and I thought that would be better," Feinberg said during a interview on NPR's "Fresh Air" this summer. But it is wrong, he said, to characterize this unequal approach as somehow un-American.

    "It was very, very American," Feinberg says. Like it or not, "this program reflected what the civil justice system does every day. If you fall off a ladder, and you're a stockbroker or if you get hit by an automobile and you're a stockbroker you're going to get more from a jury, more money, than if you're a waiter who fell off a ladder or got hit by an automobile."

    After a rocky, impersonal start in which his efficient, lawyerly demeanor offended some families in large meetings Feinberg became determined to meet, one-on-one, with as many relatives of 9/11 victims as possible. By his estimation, he sat with thousands of people. Through this journey, the Special Master came to see his job as one of bearing witness to human grief and suffering. Feinberg encountered a stunning and touching variety of reactions to death.

    "While some would discuss 9/11 with anybody within listening range, I knew that others remained in their homes behind locked doors, unable to confront the world," Feinberg writes. "On the anniversary of 9/11, some families involved themselves intensely in the public ceremonies at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and Shanksville, Pennsylvania. They lit candles and helped read aloud the names of the dead. Others made a conscious decision to avoid recognizing the anniversary date. They did not turn on the television that day or read a newspaper. Who is to say which path is the better one?"

    In one private meeting, a family might insult him or question the very existence of God. At another, a grieving mother might serve him tea and snacks and make small talk before sharing the heartbreaking story of her son's death. Feinberg let people vent. He let them show him scrapbooks. He listened as some played frantic telephone tapes of their loved ones trapped in the World Trade Center on the morning of Sept. 11. In a few cases, he encountered family members who couldn't bring themselves to make a claim to the fund. Their pain was that severe.

    "Go away, Mr. Feinberg," one grieving mother said in "a flat, robotic voice" as the Special Master stood in her house, begging her to pursue a claim on the eve of the filing deadline. "Thank you for coming, but no amount of money can replace him. ..."

    Technically, formally, Feinberg's job was about distributing money, applying some sort of financial calculus toward the goal of compensating families for the loss of a loved one's future. Yet he frequently saw the reality of "what a life is worth" through the tears and testimonials of family members for whom no amount of money could ever ease their pain. He came to see something almost sacred in the value of memory.

    "People should understand that money can't make anybody whole," Feinberg says. "It's a poor surrogate in that sense."

    When the unthinkable happens when bombs explode in a subway, or when twin towers fall is there anything that can ever make it right again? We pursue some sort of "just" outcome. We seek closure. But is there any way to get there, really, once the life is lost? We've heard such cries all summer long in a Mississippi courthouse, at ceremonies commemorating the 10-year anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia, in the dazed voices of people whose futures were devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

    "Each life has value," judge Marcus Gordon said in June, sentencing Edgar Ray Killen to prison for the murder of three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Miss., in 1964. "Each life is equally as valuable as the other life."

    "They killed my entire life," Bosnian mother Fatima Budic said in July, crying beside the coffin of her 14-year-old son, whose remains had only this summer been excavated from a mass grave. "The only thing I want now is to see the guilty ones pay for it."

    "There were bodies floating past my front door," a shaken survivor of Hurricane Katrina said a few days ago , standing before ABC News cameras as he described the ordeal of fleeing his flooded home. Then, overwhelmed by so much death, he began to weep. ...

    Feinberg does not know this pain, precisely. But he can empathize.

    "My life will never be the same. Of that I'm sure," he said this summer on NPR, taking stock of how his experience as Special Master changed him. He spoke in a solemn tone rarely used in his book. "I've taken my law firm, which was a very large firm, and after 9/11 reduced it to bare bones minimum. ... .I don't think I want to practice law the same way after 9/11 want to teach more. ...

    "I'm much more fatalistic, I think. I'm not sure I'll plan more than two weeks ahead for the rest of my life. People said goodbye on Sept. 11. It was a beautiful day. A sunny day. Perfunctory goodbyes after breakfast (and) never saw 'em again. Not even a body. Vaporized, at the World Trade Center. Horrible. And I think that one ought to be a little bit skeptical about planning too far ahead. Because life doesn't work that way."

    Brad Buchholz writes for the Austin American-Statesman. E-mail: bbuchholz(at)statesman.com

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