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Commentary | John Balzar

True Need vs. Greed

January 02, 2002|John Balzar

I've been pondering those million-dollar settlements for the families of victims of the terrorist attacks, and the idea still bothers me.

It's that word, "million."

I live in a neighborhood where there are no millionaires. Or at least nobody lives like a millionaire. A new car on the block attracts a crowd. Most people mow their own lawns and don't hire gardeners. There is a plumber down the street, a retired liquor store owner nearby, also a schoolteacher, an aerospace worker, a family that runs a limo and tanning business, and a colleague from the newspaper.

I don't think people in my neighborhood give much thought to being millionaires, except maybe in their lottery daydreams.

The median income for a family in the U.S. is $42,148, according to the 2000 Census. That means half the families live on less and half on more.

Numbers can be manipulated and made to say many things, I grant you, and averages never account for individual circumstances. But let me try to be straightforward.

The U.S. government has offered the Sept. 11 families an average settlement of $1.6 million, tax-free. Place that money in a Treasury note at 5% and a family will live on $80,000 a year forever. This yield too is tax-free, so it's the equivalent of $100,000-plus in regular income, never touching the principal. That's not to mention the thousands of dollars that survivors of victims have received from charities in grants for rent, etc.

Thus, the average family that lost someone to terrorists can live on nearly 2those times what the median family in the U.S. earns. The income of these survivors will continue unchanged after they retire, while everyone else must save for their later years and then expect reduced income.

This is what bothers me.

In the name of sympathy and fellowship, tax-paying families across the country are creating a new class of millionaires. I understand, or I think I do, the reasons for this entitlement. For one thing, the government hopes to reduce the numbers and consequences of lawsuits. For another, our collective national grief is many-fold larger than the sum of its tragic parts.

"An unprecedented display of taxpayer generosity," said the special master of this new federal compensation fund.

This bothers me too.

We've all heard stories of the families that are grumbling about this largess. The poster figure is the widow with two children who lost her 29-year-old husband. He earned less than $25,000 a year as a line chef at the World Trade Center. Still, the woman told The Times, "I think $1.5 million is very little for us." Charities replaced her clunker van and paid her rent months in advance. But she demands a million for herself and a million each for her two children.

Oh well, there is greed at every station of life.

But what about the other Americans who lost loved ones, but not in the crash of terrorist planes? Why aren't we compensating them for their suffering and grief? Because terrorism is political, we're told. We were all attacked and we're in it together.

But isn't a hate crime the same thing--an American killed because he looks Arab? Don't we have a collective stake in that too? What about the gay man who is killed by a gang of rednecks who want to impose their values on society? Isn't that Al Qaeda by a different name? What about gangs that kill for money? Isn't money just as political as religion? Is one murder really $1.6 million different from another?

You try to draw a line around Sept. 11, but it turns out to be a ring of question marks.

Perhaps it's just the gross toll: the more dead, the bigger our hearts. Well, since the terrorist attacks we can extrapolate and calculate that 3,500 or so people have been murdered, about the same as lost at the World Trade Center. Many of these were as innocent as the victims of the airplane attacks. Is there any reason to believe that the grief of their families is any less or their needs smaller? In fact, aren't the charities that tend to these people strapped because citizens directed their contributions to Sept. 11 victims?

The total cost of the terrorist compensation payouts is expected to reach $6 billion. That means every man, woman and child on my block, and yours, and every block in the U.S., is being assessed $21 to make millionaires of one group of survivors. Many more unlucky Americans are left to endure killings in their families without our help. It doesn't seem right, and that's what bothers me.

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By the way: Some Lutherans have expressed concern that my Dec. 16 column on religious intolerance did not specify which church is opposed to interfaith prayer. It is the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. The largest Lutheran church in the U.S., the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, wants members to know that it supports interfaith prayer.

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