Just about a year ago, a man armed with two Berettas killed 13 people, and wounded another 4, in a Binghamton, NY immigrant aid center before turning one of the guns on himself. While the rampage was going on, dozens of people hid for hours from the gunman.
In the aftermath, around $300K was raised “for the victims.”
As The Wall Street Journal reports, who got what from that $300K has not been without controversy.
Relatives of the dead felt they deserved the lion's share. The wounded pressed their claims. Those who escaped with no physical harm but deep emotional scars also ended up in the lottery for compensation.
In the end, many were unhappy. "People were murdered," says David Marsland, a software developer who lost his wife of eight months. "If you weren't shot, then you were a very lucky person and should be grateful to be alive, and shouldn't expect a cash payout."
I don’t think I sent any money to Binghamton in the aftermath of this event, but, on occasion, I have written checks to the ‘widows and orphans’ funds that spring up when, say, some firefighters are killed in the line of action or when a family befalls some terrible fate. Without giving it much thought, I guess I’ve always assumed that my mite became part of a kitty that was evenly divvied up (on a per dead person basis) or went to some sort of common-good cause (scholarship fund for surviving children). When the tragedy involved a specific family, I assume that they’ve gotten the entire proceeds, minus the inevitable shipping and handling.
Next time I go to write a check, I’m going to see if I can check out these assumptions.
In Binghamton, there really wasn’t much money at stake.
… about $110,000 of the $300,000 raised after the shooting was spent on funerals, airline tickets, hotels and other emergency needs. Another $35,000 was earmarked for the American Civic Association, a stone-colored building where the shootings took place.
The remainder – a paltry $153K – was left for the claimants – 62 in total, when those present at the center who were traumatized by the shootings were added in to the killed and wounded.
On an even-steven basis, that’s about $2.5K per – or about twice the amount I dropped at Best Buy last week on a new laptop when my old one punked out. In other words: not much.
Still, there was a lot of controversy about how to disperse the funds, likely compounded by the awareness that those involved in other highly public, highly publicized events received fairly substantial compensation for what were, in many cases, fairly equivalent losses: death of a loved one.
There was a table in The Journal article, that noted that the average payout to the families of those killed on September 11th was $2.1M. (I can’t remember exactly, but I believe that a good part of this was government money spent to stave-off potentially bankrupting lawsuits against the airlines involved.) After the murders at V-Tech, the victim’s families received about $208K each from the fund. Those who suffered in the Omaha Mall killings got $20K each.
So, I guess, it’s understandable that victims would want something, anything, beyond what they were already insured for (which probably wasn’t all that much for folks at an immigrant support center). And that they might anticipate that the something, anything could be something big, not just anything.
One man (not the one quoted above, I must note) whose wife was killed wanted a house; another (ditto) wanted someone to pay for his son to go to college.
But $153K just doesn’t stretch that far.
And this wasn’t 9/11, when thousands were killed. (And where the government assumed some responsibility – in the case of 9/11, the government contributed $7.1B. Interesting, the WSJ table didn’t mention what, if anything, the Federal government paid out after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, arguably something they could have defended against, as it was of a Federal building.) Or Columbine, with it’s horrific narrative of innocence, alienation and revenge – and everyone who’d ever been or known a high school student was touched, and, thus, a good deal of money was donated ($4.6M), even though the number of victims (12 dead) was comparable to Binghamton.
Binghamton, alas, was just another variant on the mass-murder theme, in which some loosely-wrapped individual – psychopathic, mentally ill – completely unraveled and, as they so often do, became hell-bent on taking a lot of innocent folks out before they turned gone to self or performed suicide-by-cop.
Who has the deep pockets on this one?
In this case, the kindness of strangers – which toted up to $300K or so.
Not the stuff that dreams are made of, nor enough to help someone get rid of their nightmares.
The good people of Binghamton who were charged with King Solomon-ing the pool of money came up with a complex formula which they felt was fair, but which, of course, didn’t make much of anybody very happy.
The man who wanted to get a house got $3.3K.
"They were saying to me, 'This is all Doris [his wife] was worth,"' he says.
But even if he’d been awarded the entire $153K, would that have been what his wife was worth?
Of course not. There’s no way to put a price on the pain and suffering, but, in an actuarial sense, even someone with low earning potential would make $153K in a few years.
The whole business of putting a value of someone’s life is a tricky one, never more so when there’s so little money to go around.
An interesting part of the article talked about Kenneth Feinberg, the person who:
…headed efforts to manage funds in the wake of the 2001 terror attacks and the Virginia Tech shootings of 2007. Both experiences have led him to question whether any payments related to mass killings can be truly just…As a general rule, he is now "very wary of compensating victims of life's misfortune," says Mr. Feinberg, who wrote a book about the 9/11 fund called "What is Life Worth?" "The minute you go down that road of deciding that certain victims are entitled to public money but not others, you get into a very serious political and philosophic question.”
If there is money to be divided, Feinberg is on the side of an even split, as was the case in the V-Tech payouts he oversaw.
In the case of the man who received a check for $3.3K, that would have meant an even less substantial amount of $2.5K.
I guess the moral is, if you’re going to have a loved one killed in a mass killing, you’re better off – in a financial sense – if the event is truly massive, and if it’s the type of event that the government is likely to get involved in.
Mostly I’m with Mr. Feinberg in terms of a wariness about “compensating victims of life’s misfortune.”
Bad things happen to everybody.
Sure, it is more traumatic for the survivors when a loved one is killed in a mass killing than when they die in their sleep at the age of 97. But is it any worse to be killed on contact by a plane that flies into your building than it is to be shot by a maniac at an immigration center than it is to have a chunk of concrete fall on your head while you’re walking down the street (one of my minor occasional fears)?
From the point of view of the dead person, there’s probably not much difference.
From the point of view of the survivor, ‘never knew was hit them’, of course, trumps ‘died in sheer terror.’
But what’s it all worth? And who, beyond ‘the insurance company’ should pay?
Yes, the kindness of strangers is a nice to have – and I hope that the Binghamton survivors take some comfort from the fact that those strangers contributed $300K to help them out.
But the bottom line is that bad things happen all the time, and often to good people. Sometimes you just have to live with it, and sometimes it just doesn’t pay.