Pawns in a Brutal Game

The hostages who apparently have been removed from TWA Flight 847 at Beirut airport to other places of captivity are probably somewhat safer now than when they were at the mercy of their original captors aboard the hijacked plane. But they are still hostages, they are still pawns in a brutal game of terrorism and coercion, and in the unpredictable political and emotional climate of Lebanon their lives must still be considered in jeopardy. Matters could remain at this point for some time.

The humane impulse is, of course, to try to end this ordeal as quickly as possible. That presumably could be done by giving in to the main demand of the terrorists for the release of the 760 Lebanese Shias being held in an Israeli prison. For the hostages, for their families and friends, this seems a simple enough price to pay. But, when measured against larger considerations of American national interests and the inherent perils of rewarding terrorists for their crimes, it is not simple at all.

Israel, which in any event had planned to free its Shia captives in stages, indicates that it will let them all go at once if the United States asks it to do so. The word from Washington is that the United States expects and even wants the Shias released, but only after the American hostages are set free. What the Reagan Administration wants to avoid, and for good reason, is the appearance of a quid pro quo deal.

For what President Reagan was emphasizing Tuesday night when he said that the United States would “never make concessions” to terrorists was that to capitulate, as other countries have done before, inevitably encourages new acts of terrorism. If the demand of those who last week seized a U.S. airliner is met, then next week other American air travelers could be seized, and a still higher price demanded for their release. Blackmail is not a one-time thing--least of all, as the world should by now have learned, with terrorists. Pay it once, and it is certain that blackmailers will be back, again and again and again.


The United States is also restrained from making any obvious deal with the terrorists by concern over the effect on its overall Middle East policy. A month ago Israel, to the anger and dismay of most of its citizens, exchanged 1,150 Palestinian prisoners--among them more than 70 convicted murderers--for three Israeli soldiers captured in Lebanon. A similar release now, even at American request, could set up shock waves that would threaten Prime Minister Shimon Peres’ government. U.S. hopes for eventual talks between Israel, Jordan and Palestinian representatives, which are beginning to show some signs of being achievable, rest on Peres’ survival. That is one of the larger issues involved in the hostage drama.

The fate of the hostages remains a matter of urgent concern. But for now it is best seen as a problem, not a crisis, and it is a problem most wisely addressed by patience, by continued quiet efforts to win freedom for the hostages, by restraining justifiable outrage. Above all, it is a problem to be faced while keeping American principles and interests always in sight.