There are any number of angles you could take on the sensational story of Robert Joe Halderman’s unsuccessful bid to extort $2 million from David Letterman. I was struck by Halderman’s astonishing madness, if he is guilty as charged, in thinking he would ever really get away with it.
In the Talmud’s tractate Sotah (3a), Reish Lakish expounds an ambiguity in the Biblical text as teaching, “A person does not commit a transgression unless a spirit of madness [or foolishness, shtut] enters him.” The source of the idea is Numbers 33:6, which refers to “Any man whose wife shall go astray” and commit adultery. In the original unvowelized text of the Hebrew Bible, the word for “go astray” can equally be read as “act foolishly.”
Isn’t this true in your own experience? Certainly in mine. When we do wrong, it’s often as if a certain rational faculty in us had been temporarily removed. You wonder afterward, “How could I have done that?”
I often think of the point when these crazy media scandals suddenly blow up out of nowhere and an eminent or not so eminent person is revealed to have done dastardly things, only to have got caught in the act. Halderman, a TV network producer, has got to have a brain in his head. The man is 51 years old. Yet this suspect reportedly agrees to meet in person with Letterman’s lawyer three times, accepts a check made out to himself for $2 million and goes along to deposit it at his local bank branch, apparently never suspecting he was being set up in a sting to be arrested, that the lawyer was wired, that police were listening, that the check would never clear.
Apart from the reprehensibility of blackmail, what about the sheer reckless madness of the whole thing?
I was also just listening to Michael Medved on the radio and he noted the Letterman audience’s bizarre response to the host’s on air confession: they laughed, as if being threatened and blackmailed, which could only be a terrifying and humiliating experience for Letterman, were all some kind of elaborate comedy gag. Whether he had it coming or not isn’t my concern. How could a group of people gathered in a TV studio laugh at someone else’s excruciating discomfort this way? It’s really an age of cruelty we live in.