And we thought the Red Cross had made a mess of things. An embarrassment of riches donated on behalf of New York City emergency workers has created a benevolence scandal.
But if the Red Cross had committed too little money to the families of the Sept. 11 attacks, the various rescuers' funds have committed too much. The Red Cross early on knew what the firefighters and police officers charities are too embarrassed to admit and too restricted to correct: They all have too much money.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday December 9, 2001 Home Edition Opinion Part M Page 5 Opinion Desk 2 inches; 59 words Type of Material: Correction
New York charities--A sentence in Madison Shockley's commentary Friday should have read as follows: "Although this [the sum collected by charities for rescue workers] is less than the $543 million collected by the Red Cross in the aftermath of the attacks, the number of beneficiaries of the firefighters/police funds is about 400 families while the Red Cross Fund must respond to 3,500 families that lost loved ones..."
As of Dec. 2, the charities for the rescue workers--more than 50 such groups--had an aggregate on hand of $353 million and counting. This is more than the $543 million collected by the Red Cross in the aftermath of the attacks, until one realizes that the beneficiaries of the firefighters/police funds number about 400 families and the Red Cross Fund must respond to 3,500 families that lost loved ones, not to mention the other immediate and long-term community needs. The firefighters and officers' families are looking at an average benefit of $880,000 each.
Is this what the people giving really intended?
The Red Cross saw it coming before the rest of us. From years of experience, it knew that the viciousness of the attacks, the staggering death toll, the economic aftershocks and the deep wounding of the national spirit would combine for a unique fund-raising opportunity.
The outpouring of generosity that swept the nation in the wake of Sept. 11 was as unprecedented as the terrorist acts themselves. Even though the Red Cross' solicitations included the disclaimer that the money raised would help victims of this and other disasters, the rap on the organization is that it diverted funds away from its intended purpose. Not, mind you, to any nefarious or corrupt purposes, but things such as helping victims of a future terrorist attack.
They did this to solve several problems for a large number of people over an extended period of time. It is a time-honored moral calculation to do the most good for the most people to bring about the desired ethical outcome. But Congress (that great moral arbiter) cried foul. "Bait and switch" was the charge at House hearings.
Well, there was no bait and switch with the firefighters/officers funds. These families will get all the money. And this is morally correct--that some heroes are enriched while other heroes are impoverished?
And another thing: For whom exactly is this word "hero" appropriate? Why are firefighters and police officers (both of whom are trained for emergencies) heroes but the office worker, janitor or bad-luck tourist who helps a stranger out of the World Trade Center not?
Well, you say, they all are heroes. Then why does one family get nearly $1 million and the other a few thousand? Oh, because we must honor the intent of the donors. Was it the intent of the donors to have widows of stockbrokers, shelf stockers and city safety personnel at one another's throats because of the gross inequity of the nation's largess?
The families of firefighters and police officers are certainly deserving, but should only they be enriched while the families of others who perished go begging?
I understand that there now is a plan to create a common database for victims and survivors so that they can approach all the disparate charities at once and use a common application for aid to cut down the mountains of paperwork. Perhaps the firefighters and officers funds should join the others and level out the hierarchy of victimization that puts a bigger price tag on some lives than on others. That would be a better way to honor the sacrifice of those who died.
Madison Shockley is a writer in residence at USC's Annenberg School for Communication.