Who cares what the 9-11 families think?

For some purposes — such as suing the Saudi officials who sponsored the 9-11 attacks — the survivors and the families of the direct victims are indispensible. They have what the law calls “standing” to sue, which means that the lawyers pursuing those suits have an ethical obligation to do what their clients want done.

And it’s not hard to see why, for journalists and politicians, the families also have a sort of “standing” that makes their opinions and desires especially important.

But as natural as that impulse is, it ought to be resisted. Having lost a family member on 9-11 doesn’t automatically convey any special insight. (Though of course the average family member, being more interested in the situation than the average citizen, probably knows more about it, and might therefore be somewhat more bullsh*t-resistant.) And the families are no more at risk than the rest of us in the next attack.

The organized groups of crime victims and their families, almost entirely revenge-focused, have been a significant force in making the American criminal justice system even worse than it would otherwise have been. Most of them stridently oppose anything that could be done to reduce crime other than harsher punishment for criminals. The world would be a better place if they were ignored.

Right now, the groups of organized 9-11 families are angry at the Bush Administration for its behavior both before the attacks and since. Their view largely comports with mine (though I could wish them a little more cognizant of the false perspective hindsight often provides), and their anger is a potentially large political advantage for my side in the coming election. I’m pleased, and impressed, that they have resisted the temptation to put revenge at the top of their agenda.

But if there were a group of family members demanding the expulsion of all Muslims from the United States, I wouldn’t take the fact that they were demanding it as a reason to do it. So I have a hard time making much of the fact that, as it happens, they agree with me.

If I were running the Kerry campaign, would be tempted to find ways to use the families to help communicate the failures of the Bush Administration before and after 9-11, and its unconscionable attempt to exploit that disaster for political gain. But my own conscience wouldn’t be fully comfortable in doing so.

And if I were a professional journalist, I would try to resist the impulse to treat the families’ perspective as a privileged one. If Condi Rice ought to testify under oath before the 9-11 Commission, it’s not because she owes it to the families specifically. It’s because she owes it to all of us.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com