Carving Up 9/11 Compassion

CONTROVERSY over distributing federal money to families who lost loved ones on Sept. 11 could overshadow the compassionate effort to help those people.

In fact, the outpouring of national giving after the attacks could diminish if a current trickle of lawsuits against airlines and airport security companies - breaching a moratorium imposed soon after the tragedy by trial lawyers themselves - becomes a flood of litigation.

Such lawsuits were supposed to be held in check by giving victims' families the option of getting aid through a substantial federal compensation fund. But the discontent of many of those families with the proposed rules for distributing that money is nudging the door open to more litigation.

The danger is that cries for justice and a demand for "rights" may give the appearance of ingratitude or even greed. Taxpayers and donors may ask, "Why give?"

In designing its distribution rules, the government, of necessity, put more emphasis on what families were going to get than on what they had lost. It put a cap on "pain and suffering" payments at $250,000 per claimant. Some argue that is way below what could be won in court. Also, there's concern a required deduction of money already received from life-insurance policies or pensions could leave some families with little or no share of the federal funds.

Kenneth Feinberg, the Washington attorney overseeing distribution, has assured families that no one will go empty-handed. Mr. Feinberg has some leeway to use discretion in individual cases, though assessing individual circumstances and assigning compensation will be a Solomonic task.

Political pressure is mounting to change the rules, which will be formally issued in early February. But no amount of changing will please everyone. Essentially, individuals have to decide whether to accept the public largess of the federal fund, or go the litigation route. The law setting up the fund precludes doing both.

For most people, the compensation fund assures a payout that will be much quicker than, and possibly as generous as, awards that might come after years of litigation.

Many families are also being helped through private organizations, such as the Red Cross and Salvation Army, which have collected substantial relief funds.

The manifest goodwill of fellow citizens, and of the government, should not be undermined by political or legal maneuvers. When compassion and justice clash, they should not damage each other.

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