The fate of the American hostages is in a stage of intense crisis management in which, among Americans, the president is necessarily the leading actor. But all of us struggle to manage a quieter "crisis": balancing an understanding of a radically different foreign society with the imperatives of our own.

You would think everyone would accept that our first consideration is to save lives -- the lives currently at risk in Beirut and those that could be put at risk later if the first group were not retrieved with an eye to the examples being set for the next would-be terrorists.

For some, however, the priority is less saving lives than using force at some point in the retrieval cycle -- in the expectation that this exercise will in itself bring needed greater respect for the United States, or for Ronald Reagan personally, even if American lives are put at risk by it. This is becoming a near obsession in some circles, and the people in the grip of it are dismayed by the restraint Reagan has showed so far.

A further American priority, unavoidably a lower one when lives are at stake, is to come out of the crisis in a better position, rather than in a worse position, to pick up normal diplomatic business. The diplomats and others who conduct this business can lobby for it only quietly while a crisis is hot, but they are always right in there, as they should be, as a turn comes into view.

Actually, these hostage and hijack crises can have a curious impact on business as usual. To resolve the crisis, it is usually necessary to approach people -- here the Syrians -- and perhaps take on obligations that in other times would not be part of the picture. It may also be necessary to lean on friends -- the Israelis are the current case -- to help bring them to decisions they have difficulty reaching on their own. The terms of normal business can change as a result. Close care is required.

Meanwhile, we are invited to peer deeply into the society and culture of those who are responsible for our travail. Two things in particular are commonly suggested. The first is that we should tailor our behavior to the political and psychological demands ("realities") of the hostage-holders. The other is that we should take upon ourselves a suitable and suitably public measure of guilt for the failings of American policy in the Middle East, and not only for policy: for Western culture and its intrusions upon delicate, misunderstood and trampled local ways.

There may be considerable tactical utility in developing and in showing a sense of empathy with people who are, even as they are terrorists, political actors too. Terrorism is, after all, both a denial and an expression of politics. And those who oppose it do so not only to thwart this formof violence but, often, to thwart the cause the terrorists represent.

There are, nonetheless, grave costs in taking terror as a political expression. It can "reward" terror and advance the idea that free- lance gunplay is the wave of the future. In that sense, it undercuts politics, which is the channel of change that it is most in the interest of states to encourage. Most Americans, I think, find terror offensive and would find their government's truckling to it offensive. Many foreigners, furthermore, even those who do not much trust the United States, do not take more than passing emotional satisfaction -- if they take that -- from the spectacle of American humiliation. They know that on balance the United States is a force for order and constructive change in the world and that their own welfare is inextricably bound up in American self-confidence, in the success of the American enterprise.

This explains, I think, the curious but characteristic double set of sigals that Americans receive from abroad in a crisis. We are warned that we are the great Satan, the power responsible -- by our neg if not by our direct hand -- for the serious grievance behind the latest desperate act, and we are peppered with demands for appropriate reparations, at least in terms of sympathy and understanding.

Subtly but unmistakably, however, it is also conveyed to us that America is the single reliable source of usable political and moral authority in the world, that we must not fail to understand the fragility (which cannot be spoken of aloud) of the situation of many of our friends, and that we must not confuse their complaints about our policy with their profound underlying need to have us stay responsibly engaged on the scene.

This is why we cannot "cave" to terrorism, even as we are compelled to respond politically to terrorists. I have the impression that some part of President Reagan instinctively understands this paradox well.