Kenneth R. Feinberg, a renowned attorney who helped to resolve landmark legal disputes over Agent Orange, asbestos, and the closure of the Shoreham Nuclear Plant, was selected by then-Attorney General John Ashcroft to serve as the special master of the 9/11 Victims' Compensation Fund, established by the U.S. Congress just 11 days after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In an unprecedented attempt to heal a nation shaken to its core, Congress authorized the fund, with Feinberg at the helm, to determine the appropriate payment for each of the victims, based on a calculation of the dollar value of the lives of the more than 5,500 dead and injured.

Beliefnet senior editor Alice Chasan talked to Feinberg about the lessons he learned in this extraordinary process, which he recounted in his recent book, "What is Life Worth?" and about the insights he has to offer the nation facing the trauma of Hurricane Katrina.

Your experience and your insights on the basis of your having served as special master of the 9/11 Compensation Fund seem particularly relevant at this moment given that the nation is grappling with the question of how to redress the devastation in people's lives after Hurricane Katrina. Marc Morial, head of the National Urban League, has called for a 9/11-type compensation fund for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. What is your reaction?

The 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund was limited to death claims or physical injury claims. So in insofar as people are suggesting that we need a 9/11-type fund for Katrina, a 9/11-type fund for Katrina would be limited to death claims or personal, physical injury claims. The 9/11 Fund had nothing to do with property damage, business interruption, clean-up costs, lost profits, substitutes for insurance-it had nothing to do with that.

I haven't seen much in the way of any real congressional interest in creating a 9/11 fund for the victims of any natural disaster. The 9/11 Fund was in response to a foreign attack from foreign elements attacking America here in the United States. The 9/11 Fund was also a response to legislation designed to protect the airlines from bankruptcy. The airlines had said, we will go bankrupt if suits are filed [by victims' families]. We need help in offering a financial alternative to litigation. So the 9/11 Fund was created as an alternative remedy for those who would otherwise be suing the airlines or [those responsible for securing] the World Trade Center.

Finally, I must say the 9/11 Fund was a unique response to a unique event in American history. There were attempts once the legislation became law to add to it-victims of [the bombing of the federal building in] Oklahoma City, the African embassy bombings in Kenya, the USS Cole, even the first World Trade Center attack in 1993. All of those efforts were unsuccessful. So I think it highly unlikely that there'll be much interest in Congress in adding to the billions that are being spent on clean-up and repair by adding to it a 9/11-type victim compensation fund.

In your book, "What Is Life Worth?" you wrote that you had to grapple again and again with the notion of "need." Doesn't the nation have a new group of people, the survivors of Katrina, whose needs are various and enormous?

I think their needs are enormous and should be addressed. And from what I gather from the president, they're trying to address those needs.

What's the proper process as a nation for responding?

I think the process is just what now the nation is trying to implement. Apparently Congress and the administration are galvanized to provide billions in the way of relief, to provide as much financial assistance as possible to the victims of Katrina. And only in America would you get that type of response. As far as I can tell, the Congress and the administration are of one mind that major financial assistance ought to be provided.

But the devil is in the details, as you've pointed out in your book. Well-intentioned attempts to heal the nation after a trauma sometimes are flawed.

Of course. That's right.

The strength of my Jewish roots
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