AN INTERLUDE of remembrance all their own is due to a group of six Americans and their fellow victims from other countries who are still being held hostage in Lebanon. Theirs is an unbelievably painful and lonely plight made all the more acute by the fact that in the past few months at least a superficial measure of relief and calm has come to the larger Lebanese political scene. Even as Lebanon struggles to assemble a new national life, the hostages' ordeal continues.
They are believed to be held by one or more shadowy radical Muslim groups or clans that operate under the patronage of Iran and perhaps also of Iran's partner in the Lebanese civil wars, Syria. These groups embody sheer terrorism. Recently some of them have had the audacity to invite foreigners to return to Beirut; an official identified with one of them has even announced that the era of hostage-taking is over. Yet journalist Terry Anderson, the longest held of the hostages, is spending his sixth Christmas as a captive. If past form is a guide, he and his comrades may pass the holiday blindfolded and chained to a wall.
Various political theories circulate as to what combination of pressures, maneuvers and incentives is best calculated to free hostages. The school currently enjoying favor is the one led in effect by President Bush, who decided not to put a central political focus on his concern for the thousands of American and other hostages who were caught in Kuwait. In the Gulf it worked, or at least it didn't get in the way of other factors that were working: the Kuwait hostages are out.
An element of studied official restraint has also been part of the American approach to the hostages in Lebanon, and there the fate of the six suggests it has not worked. The conventional wisdom now is that their freedom is bound up in the new currents that are running as a result of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. That event presumably made Iran and Syria, Iraq's leading Middle East rivals, readier to accommodate the Western nations whose citizens remain at risk. It means Americans must hold Iran and Syria to doing what must be done to influence the Iranian-backed groups that hold the six in Syrian-controlled Lebanon.
While the political wheels grind, other Americans have a moral obligation of their own. The wife of Robert Polhill, a hostage released after 39 months of captivity last April, put it best. "It makes me happy to see that Robert was not forgotten," she said when he came home. "Remembrance is important."