Everyone will be telling the government what to do in the hijack crisis, and it's best for those who do so to show a certain humility. Critics must first defer to the possibility that those in charge have a plan or some private information. They must also be humble in the face of the torturing difficulty of the choices. Those of us criticizing are not obliged, afterall, to take responsibility for what happens. Still, we can't help wondering whether we are alone or stand with others in wishing to hear the government speak in a stronger and clearer voice.

It is not that we think the United States ought to burst into Beirut and start shooting. But there has been a muffled tone to many administration pronouncements, an unspoken assumption that somehow the United States and its friendswere first at fault and ought to negotiate and make concessions, a hesitancy simply to assert the innocence of these hapless Americans and to demand that they -- all of them -- be immediately freed.

The expectation that Mr. Reagan, projecting toughness, could intimidate terrorists long ago disappeared in the cruelty of Beirut. In this case, the possibility of recovery of the hostages by military action has been dashed on the usual pragmatic grounds. A stated refusal to bargain becomes the cover for the evident bargaining, involving Shiite prisoners in Israel, going on behind the scenes.

But the administration has yet to say, in simple but credible terms, that it insists on the good treatment and prompt return of these unoffending Americans. It has yet to give full throat to a denunciation of the hijackers' murder of at least one hostage, of their terrorizing and looting the others, and of their ugly racist decision to segregate passengers -- Americans, remember -- with Jewish- sounding surnames. Its words, including those addressed to Nabih Berri, the Shiite leader who assumed authority for the hostages yesterday, shy from assigning clear-cut responsibility for this act of political vandalism.

One hears it said within the administration that power is hard to apply against the terrorism conducted under layers of Syrian or Iranian patronage in ungoverned and perhaps ungovernable Lebanon. This is true. The administration's need is to take account of this truth in its actions without conveying the wrong message to its tormentors. The message that needs to be conveyed to them is their full responsibility for the safety and prompt deliverance of all the hostages. The policy of the United States ought to be that acts of terror committed against Americans will have consequences. By now it is well understood that there is no simple or cost- free way to assure that there will be consequences, but the United States cannot afford to let the view gain momentum that there will not be. We have said before in this space that we do not favor wanton preemptions or reprisals; but we would not want to rule out considered responses of different sorts, the exacting of a price from those who do these deeds and from those who make it possible and convenient for them to do so. American citizens are too exposed, American interests too great, for a terrorist gang to conclude that, against the United States, anything goes.