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Hypothetical Hostages April 24, 2014

It was intended to be a game. Each of us had been handed a paper outlining a hypothetical hostage scenario. Terrorists had taken control of a plane and were offering to release four of the hostages under the condition that they were allowed to refuel the aircraft at a nearby airbase. We were to presume that the captors would keep their word. We were then given brief biographies of each of the passengers and instructed to determine who should go free.

When we’d finished, our professor divided us into groups and, laying down a few ground rules, instructed us to come to a consensus regarding the order of release. It was not as easy as it sounds. Did we let the guy with the hero complex go in the hope that the hostages who remained on the plane wouldn’t suffer the consequences of his ill-considered antagonism? What about the mothers? Were they of more value than the fathers? Was the ex-con who was getting his life together less likely to contribute to the good of society than the priest who was ministering to thousands of vagrants? Was the congresswoman less worthy of life than the pregnant actress? Was it even possible that some of the hostages deserved to die?

Each member of the group had a different perspective and it wasn’t long before many in the room were arguing with such passion that one would have thought our hypothetical hostages were, in fact, quite real. Tempers flared. Voices were raised. The activity was becoming deeply personal… and deeply revealing.

“The problem,” I observed, “is that we don’t know what the future holds for any of these people. Perhaps the congresswoman who is inspiring so many young girls will turn out to be involved in drug-trafficking. Maybe the son of the convict will watch his dad get his life back in order and be inspired to do something truly noble with his life. Who is to say whether the actress’s unborn child would grow up to cure cancer or oppress the needy?” Looking at paragraph long bios wasn’t enough to tell us the true worth of any of the individuals on the plane. Then again, perhaps that was the point.

When we gathered together at the end of class to discuss our conclusions, it was evident that everyone had weighed different factors in determining who would be set free. All four groups agreed to release the humanitarian with the weak heart and, for some reason that none of us could clearly explain, the young mother who had three children by three different fathers and was trying to get her life back on track. Only two groups decided to allow the bigot with the loud mouth go free. The congresswoman got a vote, as did the actress.

Everyone in the class had seen the problem through different eyes. Our own beliefs and experiences had formed a filter through which we viewed others. And it was clear that the life of each of the hypothetical hostages was valuable in the mind of at least one member of the class. Sitting among us, there were those who could see through each of the passengers’ eyes, empathize with them in their sorrows or triumphs, and believe in their potential. Perhaps the lesson wasn’t about hypothetical hostages after all.

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