Four Years After

So much has happened to obscure the real nature of the crisis the nation faced on September 11, 2001, as well as the remarkable solidarity shown by the American people in the aftermath, that it is hard to believe it has been only four years since Al Qaeda terrorists flew hijacked planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

In response to the attacks, the nation came together in a rare and inspiring way. Despite the bitterly disputed 2000 presidential election, Democrats rallied behind President George W. Bush, supporting him in nearly every initiative touching on national security. When the decision was made to invade Afghanistan and dislodge the Taliban regime sheltering Al Qaeda, the president rightly had the support of a united nation and people across the world. Our cause was just and our means proportionate.

Today, two and a half years into the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, the United States is distrusted abroad and deeply divided at home. Cindy Sheehan and other parents, who count their sons or daughters among the nearly 1,900 American dead in this unnecessary war, are encamped outside the president’s Texas ranch. Sheehan has inspired people to ask the right questions: Why did we invade Iraq, and why are we still there? Why are such a small number of Americans bearing the burden of this war? Does the president have a realistic plan to bring stability to Iraq? Or has he launched the nation on a debilitating crusade based on little more than the conceit that the United States knows what’s right and best for all people?

While Sheehan carried on her vigil, Bush spoke to veterans’ and military groups, unveiling yet another novel justification for the war: now we are fighting to “honor” the sacrifice of Americans who have already died. Meanwhile, it looks as if Iraq is headed for fragmentation and civil war, precisely the outcome Bush insisted the occupation was intended to prevent. It is an outcome the president’s critics foresaw from the very beginning, only to be denounced as appeasers.

Why is the nation divided against itself? Because President Bush insisted on drawing the wrong, and the most politically self-serving, lessons from September 11. A new book, What Is Life Worth? The Unprecedented Effort to Compensate the Victims of 9/11 (Public Affairs), written by Kenneth R. Feinberg, helps us recall what the real lessons of that trauma are. Only days after 9/11, Congress created a Victims Compensation Fund. Feinberg, a mediation expert, was selected to administer it. The statute gave Feinberg unusual authority and discretion in determining what to pay claimants, and he eventually awarded more than $7 billion. All those who lost loved ones or survived the attacks, regardless of nationality or immigrant status, were eligible for compensation. In the end, 5,560 claims were settled, the median award being just under $1.7 million. As Feinberg writes, this extraordinary act of generosity was “an expression of the collective cohesive spirit of the nation,” an instance where we “respond as one people in a collective demonstration of united national purpose.”

Still, the fund was controversial because its purpose was also to shield the airline industry from lawsuits. As Feinberg points out, however, the prospect of winning a suit for damages in a terrorist attack was virtually nil. Moreover, suits might take ten years to resolve. The fund offered survivors a guaranteed award and an expedited process. As it turned out, despite initial hostility and skepticism, 97 percent of those eligible participated. In the end, most praised the fund’s work.

Feinberg draws a moving portrait of those who lost loved ones. As he candidly admits, administering the fund changed his own life, making him at once more fatalistic and more empathetic. Despite the “success” of the fund, however, Feinberg argues against mounting a similar effort again. The great flaw in the fund’s design was the requirement by Congress that Feinberg distinguish among heirs according to economic loss. In short, that meant the widows of firefighters might receive significantly smaller awards than the widows of bond traders. Feinberg recognized the inherent unfairness of such a system, and did all he could to “narrow the gap” between high and low settlements. In the end, he came to believe that if government compensates terrorist victims in the future, awards should be the same for all.

Feinberg reminds us of the egalitarian nature of citizenship, and of the democratic instinct itself. That egalitarian impulse, if engaged with honesty and imagination, can draw a diverse, contentious, and economically stratified people together in pursuit of a common end. In a time of national emergency, a democratic leader’s foremost responsibility is to act in a way that unites the nation, a responsibility this president has failed to meet in both his justification and conduct of the Iraq war. The nation, and the victims of 9/11, deserve better. So do the troops who have died in Iraq. n

August 30, 2005

Published in the 2005-09-09 issue: 
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