Thursday, April 21, 2016

Benefits of Death

My grandmother died when I was a junior in high school. It was 1982. She was the first major figure in my life that passed away. In the ensuing 34 years I’ve lost my mother’s parents, my father, friends, acquaintances, classmates…lots of people, but not as many as others I know. How do you value somebody’s life? Almost universally for me the losses have been emotional. But there is, of course, the practical side. I remember contacting Social Security after Dad died and being told of the $255 death benefit we would be getting. His life insurance policy had a different valuation which was based on a whole series of things that were agreed to when the policy was taken. That was 2010 and I don’t think much about the finances any more, let alone of the financial impact of my grandmother’s death in 1982. Anybody who has passed away in the past 33 years and had been killed by terrorism, then it’s a different story.

The CIA expanded the Survivor Benefit for “survivors of all federal employees, including contractors, killed overseas in the line of duty and as a result of terrorism. It is retroactive to April 18, 1983, the date a suicide attacker crashed a truck into the front of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, killing 63 people, including 17 Americans, some of whom were CIA officers.”

I knew a number of people who died on Pan Am Flight 103 which was blown up by the Libyans in December 1988. Syracuse schoolmates were on that plane. In 2003 Colonel Muammer Gaddafi admitted responsibility and paid the families compensation though he claimed to have never given the order for the attack. Will those people now get additional benefits with this retroactive award? Part of me wants them to and part of me doesn't. 



I don’t know what it’s like to lose a family member to an act of terrorism. It’s not like losing somebody you love to a disease. Nor is it analogous to accidents or violence. As a capitalist society everything seems to have a value, including human life.

OJ Simpson was found not guilty of killing his ex-wife Nicole and her friend Ron Goldman. Despite that declaration from a criminal court, in a separate civil trial the former football star was found liable for the deaths and awarded $33.5 million to the families, only $500K of which was ever paid.

Kenneth Feinberg may be the most well known arbiter of what a life is worth. He is most famous for spending 33 months (pro bono) as the Special Master for the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund. It was (and as of 2016 still is) the largest distribution of proceeds to beneficiaries in U.S. History. The Rand Corporation did an analysis showing how the $32 billion was distributed to the various groups – from families of victims to workers, first responders and businesses.

Whenever there’s a major event – the Boston Marathon, the BP Oil Spill, etc. Feinberg is there to allocate funds – whether they be government, insurance or private donations. It’s quite a specialty and he appears to have perfected the ability to use whatever resources are available to resolve claims and upsets.

I must say that I’m rather uncomfortable with this sort of valuation. I understand the need to blame and that financial compensation is a way to measure impact – especially when there’s negligence. When it comes to the brave men and women who serve the United States via the CIA, I raise my hat to them. I was called to be of service in my own way and they are called to be of service in their way. They get paid and the risks are a known quantity.

Going back 33 years and compensating survivors of the victims of terrorism feels like a wonderful gesture but one that is terribly misguided and sets a potentially damaging precedent. Why not go back to the Vietnam era? Or World War II? Or the Revolutionary War? Where would it stop? One person's terrorist is another's freedom fighter.


Every life is valuable. That doesn’t mean that every life is worth cash.

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