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How Much Is a Life Worth?

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That is to say, not everyone gets a million dollars when tragedy calls. And by “not everyone,” that is to say just about no one. Feinberg’s entire public career is about the outliers—the handful of moments when the government, or a corporation, or a bevy of private citizens determines that a tragic event somehow merited a pecuniary response. Until 9/11, the government was not in the business of remunerating victims of terrorism; the closest it came to compensating on a mass scale was natural-disaster relief. But families of those murdered on that September day ended up with more than $2 million each, tax free. Feinberg says such an effort, funded by taxpayer dollars, will never happen again. “It’s against our heritage and character as a nation, frankly, to be establishing government funds to compensate for loss,” he says.

Indeed, victims of the first World Trade Center bombings in 1993 never saw any money, nor did the 168 killed and 680 injured in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. Nor did the 13 troops killed and 30 wounded by a gunman at Fort Hood, Texas, in 2009. The Boston Marathon bombing, which killed three and injured more than 260 others, can be viewed as a test of whether Congress still wants to redress personal injuries caused by a terrorist attack. It doesn’t.

But if the government is out, everyday donors aren’t. The $60 million that Feinberg administered in Boston was all private money, which gave him license to disperse it any way he saw fit. Funds sprung up to assist victims of the shootings at Virginia Tech, Aurora, Colo., and Newtown, Conn. Obama persuaded BP to set aside $20 billion for businesses and communities harmed by the oil spill after its Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in 2010. Feinberg was involved in each of those efforts.

All of this raises fundamental questions of fairness, he says. On one hand, the 9/11 payout was an expression of political sentiment; few Americans objected. And as far as private money goes, well, that’s the marketplace in action. Donors are free to send checks in one case and not another, just like they’re free to choose between the Jerry Lewis telethon and the March of Dimes. On the other hand is the unsettling feeling that human life ends up being valued in all manner of disparate ways, based on publicity, geography, the nature of the crime, and the identities of the victims. “It’s horrible,” Feinberg says. A woman who lost a spouse in the Boston bombings will receive more than $2 million. A family who lost a child at Sandy Hook Elementary will see less than $300,000. Meanwhile, the families of African-American children killed by stray bullets on the streets of Chicago, Washington, New Orleans, and elsewhere may not be able to cover the cost of the funeral.

I wonder why more private money flowed in after the Boston tragedy than after the other tragedies?

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