An ugly, ugly inequality

Observations on compensation

The New York comedienne Joan Rivers recently expressed sympathy with the World Trade Center widows. Not those who have buried their husbands - the ones whose husbands turned up alive. "Can you imagine? You're sitting in your apartment, planning what you're gonna do with your one and a half million bucks, and he walks through the door and cries: 'Honey! I'm home!' Those poor women!"

The only trouble with her scenario is that not every widow could count on a cool one and a half million. Although the US government claims that all 9/11 victims' suffering is equal, some are, it turns out, more equal than others. The families of the firefighters and cleaners who died that day are being offered only a small slice of the money given to the families of stockbrokers and millionaires. Rather than a lump-sum pay-out to each family, compensation is being offered on a pernicious formula: "presumptive amount" (an estimate of what the victim would have earned in his/her lifetime) minus "collateral offset" (the amount the family has already received from life insurance and so on). The result is that 80 per cent of the pay-outs could go to just 15 per cent of the families. In a nation with the most unequal distribution of wealth in the developed world, this has attracted little dissent.

In a rare act of public complaint, Professor Peter H Shuck, a Yale University expert on tort and remedies for wrongs by governments, told the New York Times: "It's impossible to justify this money in terms of a defined system of justice. We should not be saying that a death caused by one terrorist is worth more than a death caused by another, or that a death caused by a terrorist is worth more than a death caused by a drunk driver."

Victims of other atrocities have argued that they, too, should be compensated. Kathleen Treanor, whose daughter died in the Oklahoma bombing in 1995, has launched a campaign for a similar compensation programme. She explains: "The 14th Amendment guarantees equal protection under the law. This is not equal. They told me my daughter was not worth as much as a New York victim, and that's an ugly, ugly thing to say."

Some will see this as another sign of US litigiousness gone mad; others may wonder if the victims of US-sponsored state terrorism across the world will ever receive any cash from the US government.

Johann Hari is a columnist for the Independent