There ought to be a term to describe the justice that Ken Feinberg administers. “Victims’ compensation” doesn’t capture it. What amount of money compensates for the loss of a leg? An arm? A son or daughter? Feinberg knows this. In his book, “What is Life Worth,” about administering the 9/11 victims’ fund, he describes the job as “trying to fill the hole in a family’s life with money.” The task is futile, even as it is vital.
Feinberg, a 67-year-old lawyer from Brockton whose hair circles the back of his bald head like a planetary ring, is a guru of putting a price on what’s priceless. He has administered funds for victims of the shootings at Newtown, Aurora, and Virginia Tech; for those hurt by the BP oil spill and former Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky. Now he is the unpaid administrator of the One Fund Boston. He’s the nation’s go-to grief assessor. If he’s at your door, it can’t be good news. Except that he’s very good at what he does.
Feinberg’s Rule No. 1: Keep it simple. People touched by catastrophe need certainty. Physical trauma is eligible for compensation. Emotional trauma isn’t. It is too complicated to prove.
Rule No. 2: Pay the same for each missing limb. Pay the same for each death. Forget about factoring in the lost income of the deliveryman vs. the banker. Don’t bother deducting insurance payouts. When he explains this, he speaks in a voice honed long ago as a theater-loving student at UMass Amherst. “Mr. Feinberg, I lost my legs,” he says, playing the role of a victim. “My legs! Now you want to deduct $80,000?”
Rule No. 3: Get the money out quickly. For Marathon victims, the application deadline is June 15. This is what keeps Feinberg up at night. What if there is a deluge at the deadline? What if some victims are too paralyzed by shock to file a claim? Feinberg is still haunted by an elderly woman’s refusal to seek compensation for her dead son after 9/11. In Feinberg’s personal ledger of national grief, she is still a blank entry, a loose end.
Rule No. 4: Call it like you see it. Feinberg doesn’t pretend that there is one right way to calculate grief. Some argue that the living should get more than the dead. After all, the living have medical bills to pay. But in Feinberg’s book, death tops all. “The law recognizes death as very different. Final. Death,” he says, lowering his voice, “is the worst.”
It takes a certain pragmatic empathy to administer this kind of justice. It requires someone who can admit inadequacy from the very start. Any system Feinberg sets up will be flawed. It will fail to replace what was lost. Freed by that knowledge, he barrels off into the next disaster, doing the best he can.
— FARAH STOCKMAN