Funerals are not for the dead

Perhaps the most intense moment of the 1995 movie “Sense and Sensibility” comes towards the end. Colonel Brandon (played by Alan Rickman), the movie’s kindest character, has just rescued a woman from certain death, but she’s still dangerously ill. He’s not a doctor, and he’s in anguish from his helplessness. “Set me a task!” he cries, and, when he IS sent on a dangerous mission, he’s quite relieved.

People the world over try to be helpful and are often frustrated when they can’t be. Journalists in Afghanistan report receiving exquisite hospitality from people who would as soon never have met them. Families in Madagascar without enough to eat will nevertheless share what little they have with strangers.

Americans are also helpful. A couple of years ago, I got stuck with someone on a mountain road in a blizzard, and virtually every car that went past — in either direction — stopped first, with someone getting out and slogging through the snow to make sure we were okay.

New Yorkers are so helpful that they will attempt to offer directions even to places they’ve never heard of. And our mayor is so VERY helpful that he would even have people dragged kicking and screaming from where they want to be, just to save them from themselves. That’s one item in the local news these days.

It should come as no surprise that there’s been a recent increase in homelessness in New York. There’s a recession, Federal welfare benefits have expired, unemployment is up, and some homes were made uninhabitable on September 11.

The Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church has a shelter for the homeless, but it’s small and has been filled to capacity. So the church allows more homeless people to sleep on its steps and use the sanitary facilities in the shelter.

The church is located in the heart of one of New York’s ritziest shopping districts, so, to keep the sensibilities of its commercial neighbors from being offended, it established some rules. The outdoor homeless are not supposed to gather at the church until 9 pm and are to vacate the steps by 7 am. The homeless agreed. It would seem everyone was happy. But our mayor wasn’t.

He has been ordering police to raid the site in the middle of the night. Any homeless people unwilling to be taken to city shelters (which are far away and considered dangerous) are to be arrested. The police apologize for what they are being forced to do. The church is fighting the city. Ah, it’s Christmastime in New York!

There is a Christmas tree at the site of the World Trade Center, and it is no longer surrounded by smoke. The fire might finally be out! The fire department simply calls it “contained” because they’re not yet certain there are no smoldering pockets left.

There is a new reason for New York’s firefighters to leave the department. About a quarter of those who have worked at the site have developed respiratory ailments that may be severe enough to entitle them to disability pensions. I hope they’ll be all right.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Firefighters are all very brave. They risk their lives every day to save others. “Every day” includes those days before and after September 11.

There was another story in the news today. Senator Clinton managed to get legislation passed that will extend unemployment benefits for those who lost their jobs as a result of the September 11 attacks. That’s nice, but I can’t help wondering about those who lost their jobs BEFORE September 11.

Someone who lost a job on the 11th gets a full year of benefits; someone who lost a job on the 10th gets only 26 weeks. Employment fairs are being held to help those who lost their jobs on the 11th; those who lost their jobs earlier or later are on their own.

Earlier this month George W. Bush eloquently said, “Every one of the innocents who died on September the 11th was the most important person on earth to somebody. Every death extinguished a world.” No amount of money can bring those worlds back. But the families of the victims may also be in financial need.

Kenneth Feinberg, the special master in charge of Federal benefits for the families of the victims of the September 11 attacks, announced yesterday that a single family in the appropriate category could receive almost $4.5 million — tax free — in addition to anything received from a charity. The average Federal compensation is expected to be about $1.6 million per family.

There have already been complaints. Some feel the method of benefit calculation is wrong. Others complain that certain types of victims (those with mental but not physical injuries) aren’t included. Yet others complain that homosexual partners won’t get benefits and that families of illegal aliens won’t be given any amnesty, which means they’ll be unlikely to apply to the government for help.

Already, the amount to be spent on those Federal victim benefits has been almost halved, and it may drop more. As of Wednesday, the toll of dead and missing at the World Trade Center had dropped below 3,000. It now seems likely that the overall cumulative figure, including those at the Pentagon, those on the plane that went down in Pennsylvania, those killed by anthrax, and even those Americans killed in the post-September 11 military action, will end up below 3,000.

Even one is too many. But I can’t help thinking about all of the others. I don’t mean only the non-Americans killed in our military action; I mean those whose deaths weren’t related to September 11.

It’s wonderful that the family of a firefighter lost on September 11 gets a good pension, death benefits, insurance, and more. It’s great that they get free tickets to concerts and plays and free vacations in Hawaii. But what about the families of firefighters killed on the job before September 11 or since?

I’m glad that the Federal government is helping the families of those killed at the World Trade Center by foreign terrorists on September 11. But what about the families of those killed by foreign terrorists at the World Trade Center in 1993? There was no Federal benefits program for them. No Twin Towers Fund was set up eight years ago. And there are many others.

Is it so different for a family to have a loved one killed by a foreign terrorist instead of a domestic one? What about loved ones killed by murderers? What about those killed in accidents, such as those on American flight 587? Their families do not have access to an average $1.6 million Federal benefit. There are no charities guaranteeing each family hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Nevertheless, it’s understandable why the attack-specific charities and government funds were established. On September 11, we became a nation of Colonel Brandons. We were anguished and distraught. The living firefighters and ironworkers and doctors were, in a way, the lucky ones; they had things they could do to help. The rest of us cried for a task, and the attack-specific charities gave us a way to be of assistance. Blood banks overflowed for the same reason. A fund for victims’ families gave those in government a means of helping, too.

Now, more than three months later, the blood banks are running dry again. The victims of September 11 no longer need any blood. But the victims of other crimes, accidents, and illnesses do.

The Red Cross was severely chastised for trying to divert some of the money it raised for the families of the victims of the September 11 attacks to other disaster relief. But there are other disasters, and they, too, need relief. When the Red Cross responded on September 11, it didn’t do so based on any Liberty Fund revenues.

There has been much flag waving in commercial advertisements lately. It seems that buying the latest widescreen, high-definition television set is a patriotic act of the highest order. Perhaps there’s something to that. Increased sales will keep some retail personnel employed, and that WILL help a little.

The business section of today’s New York Times noted that Cadillac is introducing a pickup truck. Its price is $50,000, and it gets just 13.5 miles per gallon. No doubt that, too, will be seen as a patriotic purchase. General Motors is bound to promote it as such.

The New York Times no longer runs a weather map of Afghanistan every day. Ellis Island, long the immigrants’ gateway to America, and Liberty Island, home of the statue that once welcomed “the wretched refuse of your teeming shore,” have reopened to tourists, though the Statue of Liberty, itself, has not. Things are slowly continuing to move back towards normal. But sometimes I wonder if “normal” is always such a good idea.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the bi-state agency that built the World Trade Center, was hit very hard by the September 11 attacks. It will be spending hundreds of millions of dollars just to restore service to a single train station in lower Manhattan. It lost many employees on September 11. It is projecting a 23% drop in operating revenue. And its recently appointed executive director will be getting a 22% raise. He will earn more than the governors of New Jersey and New York.

Raises were recommended by outside consultants for many Port Authority personnel. But the dire circumstances since September 11 made them seem inappropriate — except, it seems, for one.

In other business news, it appears that the cable-television company Comcast will take over AT&T Broadband. The publicly held Comcast shares reportedly will represent 39% of the ownership of the new company but only 1% of the voting rights; the Roberts family will own 1% but have 33% of the voting rights.

The Federal Reserve has reduced its funds rate 11 times this year, from 6.5% to 1.75%, most of the drop taking place before September 11. If this “normal” trend continues, then sometime next year the Federal government will pay banks to borrow money.

Perhaps when that happens, no one will be poor anymore — or perhaps not. Credit-card interest remains in the double digits despite the actions of the Federal Reserve.

I’m afraid I’m not very good at understanding the nuances of business and finance. But I think I understand one small aspect of American economics. Charitable donations may be deducted from income when taxes are calculated. That means the government helps you contribute to the charities of your choice.

For most of us, the end of our fiscal year is rapidly approaching. I would not presume to tell you what charitable donations to make. I ask only that you at least try to make the donations you normally would — give more if you think you can.

If you contributed earlier to some new charitable fund to help the families of the victims of September 11, that was very good of you. Unfortunately, it doesn’t help the victims of the events of the other 364 days of the year — layoffs, accidents, illnesses, etc.

Colonel Brandon continued being generous even after his heroic action. PLEASE don’t forget your usual year-end generosity.

Thank you. Happy holidays!

TTFN, Mark

PS As a present for your anticipated generosity, and in honor of Ellis Island being reopened to tourists, here’s a joke:

A New Yorker is wandering through an unfamiliar part of Manhattan when he sees a sign — “LARS JOHANSSEN – CHINESE LAUNDRY.” Inside the shop, there’s only an old man who looks Chinese. The wanderer asks to see the owner, and the Chinese-looking gentleman says he IS the owner. The wanderer asks who Lars Johanssen is, and the Chinese-looking gentleman says it is he. The wanderer looks quite surprised, so the Chinese-looking gentleman explains:

“When I first came to the United States, I passed through Ellis Island. I was in the immigration line behind a big Scandinavian. The officer asked him his name, and he said, ‘Lars Johanssen.’ Then it was my turn. When he asked me my name, I told him it was ‘Sem Ting,’ but he wrote ‘Lars Johanssen’ on my papers, too.”

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