I know they've suffered enough, but I hope the returned hostages can put up with us for a few more days.

No doubt they understand our curiosity as to what went on during their captivity and our immense gratitude that they are back. But I hope they will also try to understand that this other thing we're doing -- the parades, the saturation media coverage, the yellow ribbons -- is not for them but for ourselves.

I hope they understand (and forgive us) for embarrassing them by making them out to be heroes. They aren't heroes, of course, in the military sense of the word. They took no hill, grenaded no machine gun nest, saved no comrades, volunteered no sacrifice -- except for Bruce Laingen, who apparently passed up the chance to leave his fellow hostages behind, and especially Marine Sgt. James Lopez, who single-handedly helped a number of his compatriots to escape on the day of the hostage-taking.

Like the ex-prisoner who requested the original yellow ribbon, most of the hostages merely survived: living through their ordeal with their bodies and their honor intact. That makes them good solid Americans. But heroes?

For our part, however, it isn't enough just to be terribly glad that they survived -- that the combination of bargaining, "ransom" and Iranian self-interest finally secured their release.

We've just come through 444 days of national humiliation, and we need catharsis, some ritual to purge us of our terribly confused emotions. The returned hostages are elected for that purpose, but first we had to make them big enough for the role: to transform them into heroes.For us, not for them.

It's something we do after every major threat to the things we hold dear as a nation, and especially after every national humiliation. We look for heroes and anti-heroes: for MacArthurs and Pattons, for Mussolinis and Hitlers.

Having repudiated the war in Vietnam as an unworthy undertaking, we couldn't very well have our catharsis by raising up military heroes. We had it, instead, by making heroes of the young Americans who forced us out of that awful war.

Nixon was an adequate anti-hero for Watergate. And Ayatollah Khomeini would have served nicely for the Iranian captivity if we could have got our hands on him. We couldn't, so the returned hostages themselves will have to become our heroes.

Former president Carter won't do. We're still too torn between gratitude for his cool hand that got our countrymen back home, safe and relatively sound, and our resentment over his cold feet that produced 14 months of national humiliation.

President Reagan won't do. He had no direct role in the hostages' release, except to the extent that the Iranians may have preferred to let our people go rather than deal with an unpredictable new president.

The tireless negotiators won't do. We don't yet know what they bargained away. And in any case, it seems clear that it was not the bargaining but a decision taken by the Iranians that produced the settlement.

The returned hostages are heroes by default. I hope they'll forgive us for that.

Maybe they'll forgive us as well for our still-mixed emotions. There is a part of us that still wishes Carter had issued an ultimatum within hours after the taking of the embassy in Tehran, wishes that he had been prepared to back it up with military power.

That would have saved us from our humiliation, but it is also quite likely that it would have cost us the lives of at least some of the returned 52. That is our emotional dilemma: the same policies that produced their release produced our humiliation.

And so we lay on the former hostages, the most direct victims of the whole debasing affair, the additional burden of easing our consciences. We do it by weaving our yellow ribbons into a hero's mantle.

And if that makes them uneasy, we're sorry. At least they must know we are awfully glad they're home.