What Price Fate?

Reasons for the burst of generosity in wake of 9/11

September 10, 2006|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Sun Staff

It started within hours, maybe minutes, of the time that the two planes hit the World Trade Center, the feeling among ordinary Americans that something must be done: Blood must be donated, food must be collected, money must be given.

Within days it was clear that there were not enough injured to need all the blood, and that donated food was rotting in New York firehouses. But the impetus continued unabated. There were all sorts of offers, from free bicycles to free college tuition for all children who lost a parent, no matter if these were children of wealth or poverty.

Charities took in tens of millions in contributions. Finally, the we've-got-to-do-something impulse was hammered into a politically popular federal compensation law that made most of the 9/11 survivors millionaires.

The question is, why them? The vast majority of the victims of the attacks that took place five years ago tomorrow were, frankly, doing nothing heroic. They were simply - tragically, horribly - in the wrong place at the wrong time. What happened to them was much like what happens to someone who steps off a curb to cross the street with the green light and gets hammered by a car driven by a drunk driver.

Both are innocent victims of heinous acts. But the family of one probably gets little more than the insurance the victim had purchased, while the other gets millions. Is that right? Is it fair?

Whether it is or not, it is simply a fact of the way people react to such tragedies. Some affect us more than others and we respond in kind.

"The question is, what drives charity?" says Mark Hadley, a philosophy professor at McDaniel College in Westminster. "It is the personal sympathy, the empathy that people have. When there is a huge disaster like 9/11, people identify with it more than when someone gets hit by a drunken driver. That's on a smaller scale."

Michael Greenberger, head of the University of Maryland, Baltimore's Center for Health and Homeland Security, agrees.

"Essentially, every one of us was in those towers that day," he says. "Every one of us had a feeling - and feels to this day - that `There but for the grace of God go I.' "

The disparity with other innocent victims is not due to the fact these were victims of terrorism: Those hit by al-Qaida at the American embassies in Africa in 1998 or those his by domestic bombers at Oklahoma City's Murrah building in 1995 received relatively little assistance. The federal package for the Oklahoma City victims was two years of tax relief. Many protested that huge difference in the government's response.

The money was a very specific response to the national trauma that was 9/11.

"There are many victims that we work with who are very concerned about the disparity of services, the inequity and lack of financial support that hinders the healing process," says Helga West, who runs Witness Justice, a national nonprofit organization providing assistance to survivors of violence and their families.

West notes that most states victims' assistance programs cap their awards at $10,000. The average payout to the 9/11 victims was over $2 million.

She also points out that the federal victims assistance program is not - unlike the 9/11 compensation - funded by taxpayers. Its funds come from fines levied on white-collar criminals. In years when those fines are small, the payouts to victims are reduced.

"I think we are sympathetic to what compels us emotionally," West says of these disparities. "We see news reports of a crime or a disaster over and over and over again, we hear personal stories from people who incurred loss at a very deep place in their lives, we are very affected by that.

"I think as Americans we look for ways to feel less helpless," she says. "One of the ways people do that, especially in times of disaster, whether natural or manmade, is to come together as a community and respond by donating."

The daily individual tragedy is not felt so deeply by the community, so it doesn't garner the same response. But even efforts to iron out the inequities were meet with resistance after 9/11.

The Red Cross, for example, was excoriated by its donors when it followed its standard policy of banking money received after highly publicized disasters - such as 9/11 - and using it to help those who fell victims to events that did not get such headlines and TV coverage.

The ensuing controversy essentially forced Bernadine Healy out as Red Cross president. That is how much people wanted to think that they were helping the 9/11 victims - not victims of another tragedy - even when it became clear that the 9/11 victims would receive more help than virtually anyone in similar circumstances ever had.

There was no political effort to even out the generosity paid from government coffers. This bothers Hadley.

"The money individuals gave was an outpouring of human sympathy and charity," he says. "With charity, people are free to give as little or as much as they wish to whomever they wish.

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