The hostage crisis created a notable opportunity for American hawks to whip up public emotion and taunt the Reagan administration into taking some sort of retaliatory action. The list of strident voices included former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and Alexander Haig, former undersecretary Lawrence Eagleburger, the editor of Commentary, Norman Podhoretz, and, of course, the redoubtable William Safire and the relentless George Will. The epithets have come tumbling out: "surrender," "ransom of shame," "caving in" and even a blight on "manly" or "national" honor.

George Will's voice has been particularly shrill, since hell hath no fury like a reactionary scorned, especially one scorned by a conservative administration. He has been shrieking for some time. Right after the truck bomb attack on the Marines, he announced that America's evidentiary standard was too high, that it was somehow fussy to insist on identifying the perpetrators before striking, that America should follow the Israeli model: one need not know who did it but only who would benefit from the terrorist deed!

Whatever the reasons are for this chorus' trying to radicalize or, at least, polarize opinion, it behooves everyone involved to recall that what is at stake is not the macho image of the United States or even its credibility, but its integrity and vital interests.

It is axiomatic that, whatever the provocation, the use of coercive force (including deadly force) on innocent civilians for political purposes is inexcusable and should be punished whenever possible. It is equally clear, however, that in situations where selective punishment is not only unjust, i.e., no better than terrorist behavior, as President Reagan observed, it is also foolish and counterproductive. The Israeli model is instructive. For almost two decades, Israel's policy toward its enemies has been one of massive retaliation, whether provoked or not. A lot of innocent people have been killed or wounded, the hatred toward Israel has deepened and hardened, and, most significant, Israelis remain vulnerable, perhaps more than ever, since the emergence of suicide attacks.

The hijacking, the attacks on the Marines and the U.S. embassies, the kidnapping of innocent Americans in Beirut are not aberrations. They are signs of a new catastrophe trying to happen in the area: the emergence of widespread, virulent and indiscriminate anti-Americanism. Terrorism that ignores the distinction between the U.S. government and the American people (which is frequently made by America's friends in the Middle East to excuse U.S. actions) is a frenzied symptom of this.

That policy is badly in need of change and has been for some time. But the only remedy for bad habits is the development of good ones, and that takes time. There is no quick fix. The only thing that can happen rapidly there is what is happening: the decline of our influence and presence, which the kind of retaliation being recommended will accelerate.