The overlooked victims of violent crime

By Stephen Sugarman, The New York Times

When mass violence is concentrated around a specific event, it becomes newsworthy, and as a result substantial charitable donations often spontaneously flow in from those who wish to express their dismay and to offer something tangible with their condolences. This was true, for example, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the terrorist bombing during the Boston Marathon, and the mass shootings at Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech and Aurora, Colo.

Providing taxpayer-funded compensation focused on mass violence might be justified in very special cases. For example, suppose specific conduct by government officials is responsible for failing to prevent the killings. Or suppose a symbolic gesture is especially needed as a sign of national solidarity. Or suppose we must offer families a substitute for the right to sue enterprises connected to the disaster because private litigation would threaten some important national interest. Arguably, the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund met at least some of these criteria.

Otherwise, as tragic as it is for the victims and close survivors of mass violence, their situation in the end is no different from the terrible situations in which the victims and survivors of everyday individual deadly violence find themselves. Ordinarily, therefore, it would seem unjust to single out mass violence events for publicly funded compensation.

If there is widespread public sympathy for compensating victims of these mass events, fairness suggests that taxpayer attention should also be directed toward increasing the funding of our languishing programs to compensate victims of violent crimes. These programs exist on paper in many states, promising financial aid to families that are devastated by violence, whether carried out on an individual or a mass scale. Yet, in practice, these plans are now woefully underfunded and fail to provide any meaningful compensation or consolation to most survivors. Sympathy and compensation should not be reserved for victims of mass violence and terrorism.