March 27, 2010; Wall Street Journal | Killing sprees in communities leave gaping holes in the social fabric that can take years to mend. But what also can slow—if not impede—the healing process are the very tough decisions about how and to whom to give money that grieving community members donate in the wake of these senseless acts of tragedy.

According to the Wall Street Journal, dividing money from victims’ funds “can be the source of intense competition and renewed sorrow. What might appear to be a simple problem of arithmetic can turn into a complex moral calculus for the entire community—one rife with emotional and political consequences.”

For instance after an April 2009 shooting in Binghamton, N.Y., that left 13 people dead and four wounded, a local committee appointed to decide how to disburse some $300,000 had to grapple with questions such as whether to award more to people who were traumatized by the shootings or children left orphaned.  While the final decision about how to split the donations pleased some, others were disappointed, even angry.

Similar questions now face a committee at Fort Hood, Texas, that has to decide how to divvy up about $800,000 raised after last November’s shootings that killed 13 and wounded 32.

The article notes that one person who has probably had more experience in these matters than anyone else is Kenneth Feinberg, who is currently responsible for deciding how much to pay executives at companies that received federal bailout money. After stints in which he had to decide how to distribute money after the 9/11 attack in 2001 and shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007, Feinberg has serious doubts about whether you can make just determinations in these cases. According to the newspaper, Feinberg is “very wary of compensating victims of life’s misfortune.”

In Binghamton, after deducting for funerals, emergency costs and other expenses, committee members developed a system, based on points, to award the remaining $153,000. The committee’s decisions are being kept under wraps, and for good reason. As Lori Accardi, executive director of a local Catholic Charities that collected the bulk of the donations, notes: “Money brings out things in people you wouldn’t believe.”—Bruce Trachtenberg