MAREK HALTER IS A POLISH-born French novelist and human rights activist. Marek Halter is also the name of an engineer in Warsaw. The French Marek Halter is Jewish. The Polish Marek Halter is Roman Catholic. Until recently, the two men had never met or even known about each other, but their name linked them: Under Poland's communist regime, whenever the French Marek Halter did something to annoy the authorities, the Polish Marek Halter suffered.

When the French Marek Halter protested the internal exile of Andrei Sakharov, the Polish Marek Halter lost his job. When the Frenchman organized a campaign on behalf of the dissident Natan Sharansky, the Pole's daughter was expelled from medical school. When the French Marek Halter protested the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Polish Marek Halter was jailed. Only when the French Marek Halter was denounced in the communist press as a Zionist did the Polish Marek Halter get a clue to the reason for his persecution: The authorities probably thought the two Marek Halters were related.

But was that the real reason? Maybe that can be found only in the writings of Franz Kafka. It was his novel The Trial that told the story of K., who is persecuted by a totalitarian government for reasons that are never -- even up to the point of his execution -- explained. No matter: K. comes to believe in his own guilt and the need for his own execution.

In this, K. was the precursor of some of Stalin's purge victims, whose "crimes" consisted of nothing more than being accused. In a way, K. even foreshadowed those who testified against Stalin's victims. I recall the words, uttered many years after the event, of one prosecution witness. He knew, he said, that the defendant didn't do what he was accused of -- but that was only one definition of innocent. Another definition was advanced by the Communist Party: The accused was guilty because he was accused. In this, the witness concurred.

So, you see, it made some Kafkaesque kind of sense that the Polish Marek Halter be persecuted for the activities of the French Marek Halter.

It made sense that someone in the party or state bureaucracy of communist Poland concluded, probably correctly, that it was safer to punish the Polish Marek Halter on the basis of his name than not to. The punishment of an innocent man would not end a career. But to have to explain why that man was not punished when his name provoked questions, well, that was a different matter. The prudent course was to punish.

The French Marek Halter operated in a world of reason and logic, while the Polish Marek Halter did not. The Frenchman, in fact, was behaving in the finest tradition of the French intellectual, engaged in his world and determined to better it.

But what if the French Marek Halter knew that every time he did something good, something bad happened to the Polish Marek Halter? What if he knew his enemies had taken a hostage who bore the consequences of what he did?

In an article relating the story of the two Marek Halters, the French one does not deal with that question -- although he almost certainly will get to it. Still, the question remains: What would any of us do if out there was another person who would suffer for our acts? This, I concede, is like the proverbial anonymous peasant somewhere whose death, if you will it, will bring you $1 million. But in the case of Marek Halter, it can be assumed that the other person is like you, similar in some way, if in name only. And a shared name suggests other links -- maybe a common heritage or, in the case of the two Marek Halters, a common birth in Poland. What if, for every person, another person was taken hostage in this way: Mr. Cohen, you are advised that every time you write a column critical of {name of country}, a certain person will be made to suffer. Here is his picture and a short biography. We're sure you'll find it interesting.

Ye gods, what then? This, of course, has been the dilemma of world leaders when faced with actual hostage situations. They have almost always been advised not to meet with the hostages' relatives -- in short, to avoid becoming emotionally involved. But the media age has made that impossible. The hostages in Iran and, later, Iraq, were shown on TV. Their loved ones were interviewed. Abstractions became realities with faces and families. They were all Polish Marek Halters.

This has been the dilemma too of journalists. One journalist I know was contacted by one of his own relatives in a totalitarian country he was covering: a hostage. Others become involved, sometimes romantically, with local residents: more hostages. Even while in Baghdad recently, I looked into the faces of children, even more innocent, if that's possible, than their parents, who, of course, have no control over their situation: hostages, hostages, hostages.

Columns should have conclusions, I was told long ago, but this one will not. I am left with questions, none of them unique, but questions nonetheless: What do we owe others? What do we owe the common good? And so I hope the French and the Polish Marek Halters continue to discuss their strange relationship. I want to know what the French Marek Halter would have done had he known -- and what the Polish Marek Halter would have wanted him to do. I'd like to think they would have both agreed to proceed -- but that is a movie, not life. The latter, often, is a matter of questions, not answers.