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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Sure. I think it was both. And don't forget, the 9/11 Fund was primarily, not exclusively, but primarily directed at helping the poor, the lower middle class, the people without resources. Although the fund provided financial assistance to the high end--the millionaires and the stock brokers and the bond traders--the majority of the people who were helped by the 9/11 Fund were people of very modest income.
Now how you do that, I mean the mechanics of getting billions in relief to Katrina's victims, that's a major issue. Again, I read in the newspapers, the lack of coordination between federal, state, and local government. And I think that.they're holding hearings now on that subject.
The work that you had to do for the 9/11 Fund was unprecedented, and it put you in a position you describe in your book as akin to King Solomon--you had to make painful decisions that involved huge moral and philosophical questions. And you write that in coping with these weighty questions you drew upon your own moral grounding and faith background.
I was reared in a Jewish home, in a middle-class family in the industrial town of Brockton, Massachusetts, and I really had a grounding in respect for the underdog, trying to help those in need, reaching out to those less fortunate than you. [I was raised with] a belief that it is very important to act, in your daily conduct, like it is your last day, that you don't know what tomorrow brings. And I think that helped me get through this. [On 9/11], it was purely serendipitous which people lived and died that day, [and it gave me] a healthy respect for the uncertainties of life.
You wrote about having trouble relating to those people who had a deeply, doctrinally-religious view--
No, I had difficulty appreciating the extent of the grief exhibited, for example, by families who came to me distressed that there had been no body recovered, that their loved one had been vaporized at the World Trade Center. There was not even a proper burial of the remains. Or, the grief exhibited by some who came to see me and informed me that they'd found a left arm or a right leg.
My heritage, my Jewish heritage, relies more on memory and moving forward on the basis of respect for those who have been left behind, but not any reliance on remains or on the actual body being recovered. Although I was deeply moved and respected it, I didn't relate to it as part of my heritage.
Your own Jewish upbringing did not emphasize that, but within Orthodoxy there is scrupulous concern, even reverence, for caring for the body after death.
In Orthodox Jewish religion there is a great respect for finding every last bit of the remains to be buried, but once the remains are found or buried, I don't believe there is a doctrinal reliance on the necessity of a body. I think there is an Orthodox concern about finding every bit of the body, but I don't believe even in Orthodox Judaism there is a tremendous commitment to the necessity of the ritual of death.
9/11 and faith
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It was amazing to observe the variation, the diversity between those who had lost faith as a result of 9/11 and those who had their faiths reaffirmed, reinforced.
Were there any patterns?
Absolutely not. No pattern. It's not as if those who belong to the Catholic Church or a Protestant denomination or a Jewish denomination, or a Muslim denomination or those who are wealthy or those who are less wealthy--it was without any pattern. It was amazing for me to witness the contrast between those who had their faith affirmed and those who had their faith destroyed by 9/11.
I must say, it's years later now, I wonder if that contrast still exists to the extent that it did when I was administering the fund. Or now, have those who lost faith found it again? That I do not know.
In the course of this work, you were buffeted by every kind of emotion from the victims and their families, including intense anger and grief. It must have been extraordinarily difficult. What gave you solace during this process?
Three things. First, family, a very supportive one. Two, I must say there was a tremendous amount of political bipartisan support for what I was doing. There were no real political critics at my heels-that helped. Third, I found great solace in classical music, opera, symphonies, chamber works. I must have gone three times a week to various classical concerts, just to get away and lose myself in the music that I cherish. So all of that together provided me a pretty good buffer even though you couldn't help but lose it occasionally.
If you were asked to participate in something like this again, would you be willing to step forward and do it?
Of course. Millions of Americans would do what I did. I'm not unique in that regard. I had the assignment, but the next time, God forbid, of course I would do it again. I would do it again pro bono and I would do it again as a citizen of this country. And I think millions of people would do the same.
You say that many claimants came to you and demanded relatively larger sums "because of the victims' intrinsic moral worth, their strength, love and wisdom." How did you deal with these are abstractions?
I told them that all of those abstractions were irrelevant. My job was not to delve into abstractions but to look at the reality of what the person would have earned over a lifetime, but for 9/11. I was required by statute to perform as judge and jury, just what juries do every day throughout the United States in every city and village in this country-try to calculate an award based on lost income. Now, that's what I told everybody: that moral, intrinsic worth was not my function. But I don't believe many of the families really agreed with me on that.
In the conclusion of your book you argue that the conception of the fund was flawed. Why?
Yes. I think the fund worked wonders. I think it was a great success. I think it was the right thing to do. But I don't believe it should be done again, and if it is done again, I think it should be corrected so that everybody gets the same amount of money. And I think that would be a better way to do it. Now, having said that, in this particular instance, I think Congress and the administration did a superb job in setting up the program and administering it.
Your book is full of insights about how a nation responds to a national catastrophe that shakes citizens' confidence in their wellbeing. Would you be willing to come forward and offer your observations on how to make the nation whole again after Hurricane Katrina?
I would be glad to. I offer them in the book, and if Congress or the administration asks me, I would be glad to give them my humble suggestions with what to do this time.