Friday, September 12, 2003

Rights and Reason: Two Years and Many Lawsuits to Go

I'm not a fan of Gregg Easterbrook, who writes for The New Republic and ESPN.com. Easterbrook has a notorious anti-property rights streak that applies to any business that personally offends him (notably SUV makers and the NFL). Nevertheless, he makes an excellent argument about the latest round of litigation by survivors and families of New York's 9/11 victims:
Families who have taken the federal compensation have, so far, received average awards of $1.6 million, tax-free. Families of the United States personnel murdered by Al Qaeda in the Kenya and Tanzania terror attacks of 1998 received, on average, nothing. Families of the several hundred United States military personnel killed in Afghanistan fighting to destroy al Qaeda, and killed in Iraq fighting at least in part against terrorism, received, on average, $9,000, taxable.

Now some 9/11 families are saying $1.6 million isn't enough. Set aside whether they should be receiving anything from taxpayers, given the myriad other circumstances in which Americans die in various horrible events every bit as traumatic and devastating to their families, who receive nothing at all. Assume for the sake of argument that something about 9/11 justifies offering victims' estates a very large special payment. Yet some 9/11 families are saying very large is not large enough. This is greed; it is employing the memory of lost loved ones for gold-digging.

But we need a lawsuit to find out the truth, some families say. Every single person in the world already knows the central truth of 9/11, that United States airport and airplane security was poor. There isn't any hidden secret about how knives got through shoddy security checks, or flimsy cockpit doors were kicked in. We were all going through those checkpoints and riding on those planes, all as a society sharing the risk--including the federal judge who himself was getting on those planes though he now says it could have reasonably been foreseen they would be crashed into buildings. How odd he himself didn't foresee it.
And if Easterbrook hasn't offended you yet, just look at his conclusion:
If the families for whom $6.1 million is not enough persist in their avaricious desire to sue--and if the lawyers who would get shares of court awards, but get no shares of federal fund awards, persist in their ghoulish desire to encourage such suits--the country's two largest airlines, and largest aircraft manufacturer, may fail. This will cause significant harm the United States. And it seems unlikely that the dying thoughts of the noble victims of 9/11 were, "I hope my survivors really screw the United States for money."
A related issue is the question of whether any new structures may be built on the "footprints" of the two World Trade Center towers. The most vocal group of survivors and families want an absolute prohibition--including utility and support structures--on all development to preserve what they call the "sacred" character of the space. My position on this is that if these folks want to buy the land, buyout WTC leaseholder Larry Silverstein, and preserve the footprints as an eternal monument to death, then let them. But the government should not be using its power to force that outcome, as is happening now under the leadership of New York Gov. George Pataki and former city mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

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