Kenneth Feinberg, an attorney and mediator who has overseen victim compensation funds following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and other national tragedies, spoke in Asheville Monday of the emotional toll of managing such payouts.
“It’s not heavy lifting in terms of designing the program and deciding who gets what. The tough part of what I do every day is the emotion you go through with innocent victims of a tragedy who come to see me and vent,” Feinberg said. “Nothing can prepare you for what you’re going to hear.”
Feingberg spoke to a luncheon held by The Mediation Center, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary in Asheville. Retired Superior Court Judge Sharon Barrett, a member of The Mediation Center’s Board of Directors and a former law student of Feinberg’s, invited the national expert to Asheville.
“I thank you for this invitation. I’m honored to be invited and I salute you for your service,” Feinberg told the luncheon crowd, which included several prominent Asheville attorneys, Mediation Center volunteers and community supporters.
“You help people who believe that their local dispute is the most important dispute in the country because it’s their dispute and you sit with them – with the patience of Job I would say – and you get both sides to agree to yes and work out a creative solution.”
Feinberg, an emphatic speaker who occasionally pounded his podium for emphasis, said the emotional toll of dealing with the victims of tragedy has been hardest for him to handle. Feinberg conducted 950 separate hearings with victims following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York.
One 24-year-old woman told him she lost her husband in the attack, adding that she had a 6-year-old and 4-year-old at home. “Now you’re going to give me $2.5 million and I want it in 30 days,” Feinberg said the woman insisted.
Why? “I have terminal cancer. I have 10 weeks to live. My husband was going to survive me. I need this money to set up a trust while I still have my faculties,” Feinberg said, quoting the woman. “So we got her the money. Eight weeks later, she died.”
Another woman told Feinberg that her husband/firefighter died in the terrorist attack after he escaped from a burning tower but went back to rescue others still trapped. He was killed when someone who had jumped from the 103rd floor and hit hit him. “There is no God, Mr. Feinberg,” she told him.
Feinberg said a man whose wife of 25 years died on September 11th insisted that Feinberg watch a video of their marriage. “People who came to see me – none of them came to me to talk about money. They came to vent about life’s unfairness,” Feinberg said, “or they came to me to validate the memory of a lost loved one. My office was filled with memorabilia – ribbons, medals, videos, green cards, photographs, toys. You should have seen my office.”
Victim compensation funds are set up only after public emotion rises to a certain level, Feinberg said. “It has nothing to do with numbers of the quality of claims. It’s emotion. Never underestimate the charitable impulse of the American people. It’s astounding to me. It’s a marvelous, marvelous thing.”
Feinberg added a note of caution about setting up such funds. While managing the Sept. 11th fund, people who lost loved ones in the original World Trade Center attacks and the Oklahoma City bombing asked why they were never compensated.
“Be careful about setting up these generous funds and singling out people,” he said.
After his talk, Feinberg took written questions from the audience. One asked his advice on improving relations between police departments and communities in the wake of reports around the country of police brutality, especially white officers killing unarmed black men.
“You guys know better than I do. You’re wrangling with community problems every day,” Feinberg said.
“I think it starts really at the grassroots. You have to have interested parties sit down and work thourgh a blueprint. I feel for the police. They’re the endgame. What about schools and health care and all the other problems that end up on the police blotter? It’s almost like the police are at the end of the process.”
Frankly, I always thought the 9/11 Compensation Fund was an odd idea. As he states, the injured or survivors of those who died in the first WTC attack and Oklahoma bombing said, “huh, really?”
I mean you could go berserk with this idea. Every hurricane, tornado, serious flood, bombing. etc. etc.