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Debate Continues Over Terror Victim's Compensation - 2002-03-13


There is a growing debate in the United States over the U.S. government's decision to provide billions of dollars in compensation to the families affected by last September's terrorist attacks, especially whether victims of other terrorist acts both past and future should be entitled to similar compensation.

On average, the U.S. government expects to pay nearly $2 million to each of the families of September 11 victims, a settlement that is expected to cost the taxpayer at least $6 billion.

Congress authorized the payments to protect financially troubled airlines from an expected onslaught of terrorism-related lawsuits, which could have pushed them into bankruptcy. Claims filed against Pan American Airways after the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Scotland helped put that airline out of business.

Increasingly, other victims of terrorism, of the Oklahoma City bombing, the terrorist attack on the U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983 and the first bombing of the World Trade Center a decade later, are asking whether they too should be entitled to similar compensation.

Daniel Cohen's 20-year-old daughter was among the 259 people killed aboard Pan Am 103. "Do we have a mess on our hands," he asked? "Oh boy, do we ever. All of these families are looking at this and saying, 'wait a minute. We didn't get anywhere near this kind of money.' It's a mess that's going to be fought out for years and years to come."

After lengthy litigation and lawyers' fees, Mr. Cohen ended up receiving about $500,000 from lawsuits filed against Pan Am. One reason the government decided to create a compensation fund for last September's attacks was so families would not have to deal with the strain of lawsuits on top of grief.

But Kenneth Feinberg, the attorney overseeing disbursement of the September 11 fund, predicts Congress is poised to face pressure to compensate other terrorist victims. He spoke on the NBC television program Meet the Press. "Oklahoma City, African embassy Bombings, Pan Am. Congress carved out my jurisdiction and I tell people all the time, my jurisdiction is September 11. I don't know why Oklahoma City or the Tanzania bombing victims aren't covered. I see no real distinction. Once you open this whole issue up of taxpayer compensation in times of crisis, you lead yourself on a slippery slope and whether this will be unique or a series of precedents, I don't know," he said.

Relatives of many of those who died in last September's attacks, including Stephen Push, whose wife was killed when a hijacked plane flew into the Pentagon, also believe the nearly $2 million figure being offered by the government is far less than they could recover in court. "That's before collateral payment deductions, so the actual pay out to families will be substantially less than that and in some cases might be zero," he said. "It's only right that they compensate the families in some manner roughly equivalent to what they could have expected from the tort system."

In addition to the government payout, September 11 families are also entitled to hundreds of thousands of dollars in money raised by private charities. Six months after the attacks, e-mail comments received by the Justice Department suggest a once-sympathetic public has now begun to sour because of all the bickering over compensation.

Daniel Cohen had to endure much of the same reaction after he lost his daughter on Pan Am 103, 14 years ago. He said, "The problem is there was too much talk about money at the very beginning. Most people are just devastated. Literally, you've got a few people going out on television talking. A lot of these people, widows, parents, they can't even get out of bed yet. To us, 9-11 was six months ago, to them it was yesterday. You feel that you are being forgotten. Believe it or not. We felt after about six months abandoned and no one remembered Pan Am 103 anymore. And people get tired of you because they've moved on and you haven't and they wonder what's wrong with you."

All sides do agree that the courts may soon have to step in and set a uniform standard for who is entitled to compensation for an act of terrorism. The federal government, by creating the September 11 fund, may have set a precedent for how much compensation future terrorism victims can receive.