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December 11th, 2001

  The Price of Grief

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The terrorist attacks on this country and the war that has followed have thrown up an interesting clutch of moral problems, the kinds of issues nobody had to bother much about prior to September 11th. One of them is the issue of torture, which I discussed in a previous column. (And got the most polarized email-bag ever, divided evenly between people who think I am bearing witness for western civilization and people who think I am a lily-livered bleating moron, with almost no-one in between.) Now here is another: how do you distribute the funds collected for the relatives of September 11th victims?

This is not a simple matter. Huge sums of money have been donated to charities like the Red Cross and meta-charities like United Way. There have been serious problems getting it out to the victims' relatives, documented on TV by the indispensable Bill O'Reilly of Fox News, and in print by writers like Marvin Olasky in the Nov. 21st Wall Street Journal. (Many of these problems seem to stem from the fact that charity organizations, like the rest of us, are terrified of the IRS. Is it really beyond the wit of 21st-century man to devise a system for raising public revenues that does not turn us all into trembling poltroons?)

There is also some ill feeling between the "uniformed" and "civilian" families. If a Boeing 767 came in through the office window while you were sitting at your desk trading guvvies, then you are a victim, murdered by America's enemies. If, on the other hand, you ran to the scene when you saw the south tower on fire, because you are a cop or a firefighter and it's your job to run towards danger, and then you died when the damn thing came down on top of you, that makes you a hero, in my book as much as anyone else's. Invidious as it may seem, we all feel instinctively that there is some difference of quality between the two deaths. Yet the grief of a mere victim's wife, husband, mother, child or lover is just as great as that of a hero's; and the uniformed services have well-established, well-tried support services, networks and benefits that kick in when someone dies in the line of duty — services not available to civilians. The sense of injustice felt by the civilian families is compounded by the fact of there being special relief funds established for police and firefighter families, funds that are doing especially well because people want to honor the heroism of those who died in uniform.

Setting all that aside, however, just considering the "civilian" victims alone, and imagining that there are no procedural problems involved in giving out the funds, how should they be given out?

To show the dilemma, let me pose three fictional instances.

OK, here's a million bucks. Distribute it among the survivors of these three Americans. How are you going to do it? Pay their bills? Mrs Bondtrader's add up to twenty thousand dollars a month; Mrs Dishwasher's are twenty thousand a year. Is this fair? Is Peter Penpusher's mother entitled to anything?

I've exaggerated to make my point, but issues like these are turning up now. Long Island Newsday, my local paper, recently ran an article about how the Red Cross is coping. Their ground rules seem to be based on "meeting needs," i.e. on paying bills. They do this according to something called an "allocation formula," whose details are not given, but which obviously pays more to people whose bills are bigger. As examples, we are given the senior executive of a financial firm with an "undisclosed" — presumably quite large — mortgage: the Red Cross gave his family $30,000. Then there was the family of a security guard, living in an apartment whose rent is $456 a month: they got $7,000. It all looks a bit like Matthew 25:29 — "Unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance; but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath."

That's unfair to the Red Cross, of course, who I am sure are doing their best, and also to the grieving families, every one of whom would far rather have their loved ones back with them than get a Red Cross check with any number at all written on it. And to be turned out of your home because you can't pay the bills is just as distressing if your home is a $4m mansion in Westchester as it is when it's a $450-per-month apartment in Brooklyn. Nobody wants any of the families to suffer more distress than they already have. Yet still the ethical problem lingers. Newsday quotes an actual ethicist, Deni Elliott from the University of Montana: compensating people based on their prior needs, says this person, "gives additional privilege to people who were privileged to begin with."

So how do you do it? It's tempting here to slip into moral judgments about other people's lifestyles. This is especially tempting for conservatives, who are so sick of being hectored about being "judgmental" that we feel like passing judgment at the drop of a hat, just to be cussed. Look at that virtuous Diego Dishwasher (we might say), practising the good old Puritan ethic — frugality, industriousness, restraint. Billy Bondtrader was living disgracefully far beyond his means, and if his family falls into financial misfortune, they have Billy's own imprudence to blame. I'm susceptible to thoughts like this myself, being by temperament and upbringing on the Diego end of the prudence spectrum. I stay resolutely out of debt (no mortgage, no car loan), wear my suits until the stitching falls out of the seams, and pay bills in full when they're presented to me.

I'd feel more confident about my own virtue, though, if I did not have ringing in my ears the hoots of derision I used to get from my Wall Street colleagues when they found out about my pathetically unsophisticated financial habits. "You don't even have a mortgage? Derb, you're an idiot! The money's dirt cheap! And it comes with a tax break!"  And, let's face it, my life style is un-American. If everyone followed my lead, the country would be poorer. The credit card companies would all be out of business, for a start — in fact, the entire financial structure would collapse. There is even, I sometimes reflect glumly, something a bit timid, a bit unmanly, about living within your means. Winston Churchill didn't live within his means. The Duke of Wellington didn't live within his means. I heard about a manager who, when interviewing someone for a position on the trading floor, would ask the applicant how much he owed. If the answer wasn't big enough — no hire. Staggering around with a half-ton of debt strapped to your back shows you are an adventurer, a risk-taker, a fearless warrior in life's battle. (It also, of course, means that you're going to have to work like a dog to service all that debt.)

I don't, therefore, feel much like making moral judgments here. I think what I would do, if it were up to me, would be: pay all the survivors' bills for a period of six months, then divide up whatever funds were left as one-off cash payments, the same amount to everyone. That isn't very satisfactory, either. Mrs Bondtrader is still going to lose her house, most likely, while Mrs Dishwasher might actually have enough to buy a house for the first time in her life. It seems to me to be as close to equity as you can get in knotty situations like this, though. As the intro song to my favorite TV sitcom tells us, "life is unfair."