DESPITE THE MOST unhappy death of two of the hostages, there is no doubt that the Dutch government was right to call in the marines. The South Moluccan terrorists were still holding their 55 hostages at gunpoint, and after three weeks the negotiations were stalemated. Answering force with greater force is always the last resort. But the Dutch authorities had the courage to recognize that they had arrived at that last resort. The dawn attack was dangerous. But it was less dangerous than any alternative.

Several years ago, when European governments first confronted the current wave of terrorism, the rule was generally to free the hostages at any cost. But then the governments began to realize how hight the costs could run in terms of the safety of other hostages in future episodes. Each one of these savage incidents casts a long shadow. However it works out, it sets a precedent. If the precedent suggests any kind of chance that terrorism can by made to pay off, it will inevitably be rewarded with further kidnappings, further demands and further deaths.

Hostages died in the first assault by South Moluccans 18 months ago. The terrorists in tha t incident are now serving prison terms that are, by American standards, lenient. But one purpose of the latest attempts was to spring the people jailed in the previous one. The Dutch government perceived that if it gave in to any part of the gunmen's demands this time it would face the capture of still another train a year or two from now. The South Moluccan's grievances spring from the isolation, perhaps partly self-imposed, of a racial minority in an otherwise tightly homogeneous country, and they are beyond the capacity of political mediators to resolve over a telephone. The terrorists' stated goals were bizarre in the extreme. They wanted the Dutch to persuade Indonesia to grant independence to the Molucca Islands. The Dutch would have a better chance of persuading the United States to give Manhattan back to the Indians.

But whether the terrorists' grievances were real has nothing to do with the issue. In a democracy, seizing the hostages is not a tolerable recourse. Grabbing people at random and threatening to blow their heads off is not justifiable by any grievance. To its credit, the Dutch government had evidently resolved from the beginning not to give in to any of the Moluccans' demands about freeing prisoners or leaving the country. It was a decision that cost lives, but, in the end, it may save many more lives than it cost.