THE PILOT EDITORIAL - How much is a tragedy worth?

Thursday, January 10, 2002

The Des Moines Register and its guest columnist John Balzar have raised an interesting debate this week - what does the country owe the families of the September 11 tragedy?

The writer sounds oddly jealous. He notes that nobody in his neighborhood (presumably, Los Angeles) lives like a millionaire. Most mow their own grass, he says.

The U.S. government has offered the families of the terrorist attack victims an average settlement of $1.6 million tax-free, according to Balzar, including the two-children family of a lowly World Trade Center cook that had been getting by on his $25,000 a year. Indeed, decently invested, the typical government payout would produce an annual income of over twice the median family income across the U.S. without touching the principal.

And taxpayers have poured out tons of charity on top of that, the writer grouses. It bothers him something fierce. And all the other murder victims in the U.S. don't get a million dollars, the article points out.

His math indicates that "every man, woman and child on my block, and yours, and every block in the United States is being assessed $21 to make millionaires of one group of survivors..."

The writer hypothesizes that the reasoning for the payments is at least in large part the government's desire to distract the families from suing it.

Much of what Balzar says is true; the payments will be expensive. In many cases, the revenue may be more than a dead World Trade Center worker, firefighter or police officer would have earned in the rest of their career.

Yet it seems awfully jaded to lust after the largess of widows and children left without parents.

We wonder what price the writer and the newspaper would put on a life? Is it $42,148, the amount of the median family income in the country just now?

How many of us would have our husband or wife, our child or our best friend ripped away from us in senseless violence in exchange for that government check.

Indeed it will be expensive to deal with the aftermath. But Americans are a generous people; sharing and giving is an essential part of our own way of dealing with the collective grief.

It might make good economic sense for the government and the people who have given to charity to turn their backs, but it wouldn't be American, or particularly healthy.

It could get pretty ugly, if you start considering that the federal government spent an average of just $4,830 per person in Buena Vista County last fiscal year, and less than $100 million in total.

The whole terrorism victim relief package may cost $6 billion. Sounds like a lot, but remember that the feds will spend over $300 billion in other grants this year as well. Social Security payments amount to $35 billion a month. Six billion is a lot of money in a rough economy, but it isn't a lot in light of a hopefully once-in-a-lifetime level of tragedy.

Traditionally, we have both expected and demanded that our nation care for those hurt or lost in war, and those they leave behind. If we are to treat the terrorist attacks as an act of war, as our president terms it, our losses would be war losses.

If our $21 has created millionaires out of a tragedy, that is a little strange. It would be stranger still not to take responsibility.

And it is downright bizarre to think of the lives of people's loved ones in terms of what they are worth in hard, cold dollars and cents.

Our thankfulness for the safety of our own loved ones in light of that horrific scene is a lot more than twenty-one dollars deep.