One of my sons once ran away from home. I do not recall what precipitated it, but I do remember the panic that my wife and I felt when we could not locate him. We searched the house, called neighbors, and offered a prayer. After an agonizing hour, we finally did find him in the backyard, and we both breathed a great sigh of relief.
I recalled that very stressful day as I watched the opening scenes of Ransom, a tense thriller about the kidnapping of a young boy. The moment when parents discover their child is missing is gut-wrenching; and while parents may utter comforting words to one another at a time of crisis, inwardly they fear the worst.
Tom Mullen, a successful owner of a new and growing airline, has his admirers and his critics, some of whom are jealous of his wealth and social standing. He is an obvious target for unsavory types who want his money; and on the day of a student science fair in Central Park in New York, they kidnap his son as he wanders through the crowds.
Soon the kidnappers call and demand a ransom of two million dollars and tell the Mullens not to involve the police or FBI. Here is their dilemma. What is the best way to insure that their son returns home safe and sound? The Mullens decide to inform the FBI, but they are prepared to deliver the ransom to the kidnappers. Agent Lonnie Hawkins approves of Tom’s approach to getting back his son, mentioning to him that from a statistical perspective the odds of getting him back alive are increased if he simply pays the ransom.
However, after one bungled attempt to pay the kidnappers, Tom has an epiphany about the kidnappers, and concludes that his son will not return alive even if the ransom is paid. Tom then does something surprising. He goes on TV and announces that he will not pay the ransom but will instead offer a bounty of two million dollars for information leading to the death or arrest of the kidnapper.
In the Talmud there is direction for coming to a decision in a complicated situation where the outcome is unclear. The Talmud tells us that when there is a choice between a doubt and a certainty, choose the certainty, or at least the solution that from a statistical perspective is more likely to achieve the desired results. Of course, one Talmudic aphorism does not wisdom make and the intelligent person considers other pieces of wisdom as well.
The Ethics of the Fathers encourages us to be deliberate in judgment. We should not rush to rash decisions. Moreover, the Sages tell us not to act as a judge alone if at all possible. Try to glean the opinions of others to make better decisions. At the end of the day, making life and death decisions requires great knowledge and wide life experience and it cannot be reduced to one set of givens or another. Life’s tests are often complex and there are no easy answers.
Ransom offers one idiosyncratic approach to a terrible dilemma, but there are a wide range of possible responses to a life and death scenario. Only hindsight will reveal if one has made the perfect decision in a situation fraught with peril. For the present, our Sages recommend that we gather knowledge, consult with others, look at our options, weigh them carefully, and consider who the players are. With the best input, the outcomes will be acceptable even though they may not be perfect.