THE HOSTAGES have been frozen, as in a time capsule, a bad-time capsule, for 14 1/2 long painful months while all around them strange and savage events have been altering the outside world from which they were kidnapped Nov. 4, 1979. Yet if they have been in terrible suspension, undergoing an ordeal whose details will be emerging only now, they have not been alone. Unlike, say, military men taken prisoner in the course of duty of which capture or worse is a known risk, these 50-some diplomats were, like most of the rest of us, civilians under the protection of a common respect for norms, in their case international norms. Their seizure, then, violated not only their formal diplomatic immunity but the presumptive civility of the world in which we live.

This perhaps accounts for the remarkable extent to which millions of Americans came to identify personally with the hostages, to grieve for them, to speak of them not just publicy but in quite private ways, frequently. Those few men and women represented us in a diplomatic sense while they were at work before their capture, but they represented us in a different and deeply felt human sense through the period of their incarceration. Who does not feel joy, for them and their families, at work of their return?

But there is something else. Whatever inhibitions the captivity of the hostages has imposed on policy debate and political contention will now be removed. A futher raw edge may be added to the public dialogue as a result. Not many people, we judge, are likely to feel that either the administration or the country was insufficiently attentive to the plight of the hostages. More likely, it will be asked whether the United States, in its obsession -- and it was that -- with the hostages, displayed a sentimentality at odds with the requirements of national policy in these unforgiving times.

It is a fair question, but we hope that, in considering it, people will not forget the real emotion that flowed for the hostages during the months gone by. It was an emotion, we believe, that did credit to the idea of a nation as a community of people who accept their obligations to each other. If the taking of the hostages was a humiliation, then the rallying around was a cause for pride. The prisoners may not have been heroes in any conventional sense, although the personal qualities that took them through their travail were heroic qualities. But they performed a notable service, by bearing their ordeal in dignity. They will be coming home to a country that honors them for it.