HOW DO you discuss the impact of those TV scenes the other night -- as we all watched the hostages coming home -- without getting soppy? Answer: you don't. Those were moments of pure beauty and exultation and pride and anger and fellow-feeling among Americans that confound any effort to explain them away. It was overwhelming to watch those 52 people finally emerge from the doorway of the Algerian plane, to hear the cheering and watch their response to it in Wiesbaden when the waiting throng of their compatriots finally sighted them, to see the hostages' families reacting to the news of their release. We suspect there weren't very many sophisticates or cynics in the country at the moment. The impulse was to cry.

These feelings exist somewhere outside all that previous argument about whether the country, or at least its government, wasn't overstating the importance of the hostage episode from both a strategic and a tactical point of view; and they also transcend the logic which holds that in terms of time spent in captivity and numbers of captives held, these 52 Americans have engaged our attentions and emotions disproportionately. The point is that suffering and worth aren't judged by the numbers.

The Americans who wre seized that day at the embassy compound in Tehran were especially badly, even cruelly, used. (We are only learning now how cruelly used) by a bunch of sadists and thugs who think there is some honor, even bravery that attaches to, say, capturing undefended diplomats or telling a person his mother has died and letting him live with that lie for months on end or beating unarmed captives or arranging to have them heckled and abused on the last few feet of their way to freedom.

To some extent these captives became an enraging metaphor for our government's helplessness and the country's victimization by Iranians who were toying with our emotions and fears just as certainly as that cleric of theirs was seen one night to be toying with the corpses of American servicemen killed in the rescue attempt. That must account for some of the out-pouring of feeling. But there is also the simple, over-whelming fact of the way in which we have as a nation become almost personally acquainted with the families of the hostages, how well we have come to feel we "know" them through a certain universality of emotion that was generated by each of the many different hostage families -- even family-types -- we observed. In some way that defies naming, these hostages, for all that their ordeal embodied a particular American vulnerability in this case, themselves embodied, as did their families, strengths and virtues and degree of dignity and courage that are the opposite of weakness. They were an example to their government.