Who deserves the 9/11 cash pile?

The conventional wisdom debunked.
Dec. 12 2001 4:11 PM

Who Deserves the 9/11 Cash Pile?

A moral philosopher on misplaced generosity.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

An "avalanche," a "flood"—these terms have been used to describe not natural disasters but the money flowing to victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. At the time of writing, the total given to public appeals has reached $1.3 billion. Of this, according to a New York Times survey, $353 million has been raised exclusively for the families of about 400 police officers, firefighters, and other uniformed personnel who died trying to save others. That comes to $880,000 for each family. Families of victims who were not in uniform will receive much less, because the remaining funds must be spread over a much larger number of people, including those who have lost their jobs because of the attacks.

Questions of justice immediately arise. At a New Jersey support meeting for the families of those killed on Sept. 11, a "screaming match" broke out when a widow of a Port Authority police officer argued that her family deserved more charity than other families because her husband had died saving others. That argument was hotly contested by the widow of a financial executive, who insisted that all casualties deserved equal treatment. The New York Times quoted Mary Ellen Salamone as saying that she was "heartbroken about the inequities—that people could value the lives of those men more than they would value the lives of our men."

It makes sense for the community to reward the families of those who die while bravely trying to save others, for doing so both recognizes and encourages acts of great benefit to the community. This is not a matter of equity or distributive justice but sound social policy. How big the difference between the reward for these and the "civilian" victims ought to be is another question. It could be argued that the families of the firefighters killed would have been adequately provided for even if there had been no donations at all. Their spouses will receive New York state pensions equal to the lost salaries, and their children will be entitled to full scholarships to state universities. The federal government is giving an additional $250,000 to families of police officers and firefighters killed on duty. For families to receive close to a million dollars in cash on top of all that may well leave us thinking that something has gone awry.

As it happens, just as the terrorists were putting their criminal plans into practice, the United Nations Children's Fund was getting ready to issue its 2002 report, The State of the World's Children. (For a summary, see this page; click here for the full report.)According to the UNICEF report, released to the media on Sept. 13, more than 10 million children under 5 die each year from preventable causes such as malnutrition, unsafe water, and the lack of even the most basic health care. Since Sept. 11, 2001, was probably just another day for most of the world's desperately poor people, we can expect that more than 27,000 children under 5 died from these causes on that day. If we include humans of all ages dying from causes related to extreme poverty, the daily figure would easily pass 100,000. (Based on the estimate of 40 million deaths mentioned in President Clinton’s speech of Sept. 29, 1999, on canceling the debts of the poorest nations.)

Such figures do not diminish the tragedy of Sept. 11, but they put the debate over how to divide up the largess among the families of uniformed and civilian victims of the attacks into perspective. They force us to ask: How can we justify giving such huge sums to the families of the firefighters and police when we do so little for people in other countries whose needs are much more desperate?

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We often hear it said that "America is the most generous nation on earth." But when it comes to foreign aid, America is the most stingy nation on earth. Many years ago, the United Nations set a target for development aid of 0.7 percent of Gross National Product. A handful of developed nations—Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden—meet or surpass this very modest target of giving 70 cents in every $100 dollars that their economy produces to the developing nations. Most nations fail to reach it, but no developed nation fails so miserably as the United States, which in 1999, the last year for which figures are available, gave 0.1 percent of GNP, or 10 cents in every $100, just one-seventh of the U.N. target. That is far less in actual U.S. dollars than Japan gives—about $9 billion for the United States, as compared with over $15 billion for Japan—although the U.S. economy is roughly twice the size of Japan's. And even that miserly figure isn't really aid to the most needy, as much of it is strategically targeted for political purposes. The largest single recipient of U.S. official development assistance is Egypt, followed by Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is tiny, but gets more aid from the United States than India does. (These figures come from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, as of July 23, 2001.)

Some will say it is misleading to focus on official aid, because the United States is a country that distrusts government more than most other nations do. If private aid sources were also included, would the United States not turn out to be more generous in its aid to other nations? Yes, a higher proportion of the total aid given by the United States is nongovernmental aid than is the case for other nations. But nongovernmental aid everywhere is dwarfed by government aid, and that is true in the United States too. So, adding in the nongovernmental aid is insufficient either to get the United States off the very bottom of the list of developed countries or to make the total sum given, in actual dollars, match the amount given by Japan.

Americans are fond of talking of their belief in human equality, but it seems that their circle of concern drops off sharply once it gets to the boundary of their own nation. The sums donated to the victims of Sept. 11 show this once again. We would be a better nation if our generosity was more closely related to need and less closely tied to whether someone is a fellow citizen, or a victim of terrorism, or even a hero.

Peter Singer is professor of bioethics at Princeton University and laureate professor at the University of Melbourne. He is the author of Animal Liberation, among other books.

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