ARI SHAPIRO, host:
Today's This I Believe essay comes from Kenneth Feinberg. He's a New York attorney specializing in mediation and alternative dispute resolution. And he's best known for his role as special master of the Federal September 11 Victim Compensation Fund. Here's our series curator, independent producer Jay Allison.
Mr. JAY ALLISON (Series Curator, Independent Producer, This I Believe): Kenneth Feinberg is accustomed to settling claims and challenging legal cases. But it wasn't until he was asked to administer the September 11 Fund that his personal convictions came into conflict with the law, a conflict that confirmed his belief. Here's Kenneth Feinberg with his essay for This I Believe.
Mr. KENNETH FEINBERG (Contributing Essayist): What is an individual life worth? Do our lives have equal value? Struggling with these questions led me to my belief.
After September 11, I confronted the challenge of placing a value on human life by calculating different amounts of compensation for each and every victim. The law required that I give more money to the stockbroker, the bond trader and the banker than to the waiter, the policeman, the fireman, and the soldier at the Pentagon. This is what happens every day in courtrooms throughout our nation. Our system of justice has always been based upon this idea - that compensation for death should be directly related to the financial circumstances of each victim.
But as I met with the 9/11 families and wrestled with issues surrounding the valuation of lives lost, I began to question this basic premise of our legal system. Trained in the law, I had always accepted that no two lives were worth the same in financial terms. But now I found the law in conflict with my growing belief in the equality of all life. Mr. Feinberg, my husband was a fireman and died a hero at the World Trade Center. Why are you giving me less money than the banker who represented Enron? Why are you demeaning the memory of my husband?
My response was defensive and unconvincing. At first, I gave the standard legal argument - that I was not evaluating the intrinsic moral worth of any individual. I was basing my decision on the law, just as juries did every day. But this explanation fell on deaf ears. Grieving families couldn't hear it, and I didn't believe it myself.
I was engaged in a personal struggle. I felt it would make more sense for Congress to provide the same amount of public compensation to each and every victim - to declare, in effect, that all lives are equal. But in this case, the law prevailed.
Last year, however, in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings and the deaths of 32 victims, I was again asked to design and administer a compensation system, this one privately funded. And I realized that Feinberg the citizen should trump Feinberg the lawyer. My legal training would no longer stand in the way. This time all victims - students and faculty alike - would receive the same compensation.
In the case of September 11, if there is a next time and Congress again decides to award public compensation, I hope the law will declare that all life should be treated the same. Courtrooms, judges, lawyers and juries are not the answer when it comes to public compensation. I have resolved my personal conflict and have learned a valuable lesson at the same time. I believe that public compensation should avoid financial distinctions which only fuel the hurt and grief of the survivors. I believe all lives should be treated the same.
Mr. ALLISON: Kenneth Feinberg with his essay for This I Believe.
We invite everyone to participate in our series. Visit NPR.org/ThisIBelieve to find out about submitting your own essay and to see all the essays we've aired over the past three years. For This I Believe, I'm Jay Allison.
SHAPIRO: Jay Allison is co-editor with Dan Gediman, John Gregory and Viki Merrick of the book "This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women."
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SHAPIRO: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.