THE ORDEAL of the 39 TWA hostages, alternately terrible and strange, ended with their deliverance yesterday. The terror was evident: one American was murdered and others were brutalized and degraded. But the strangeness was hardly less striking. The television coverage and media events contrived by the captors created a dislocating sense of normality in the midst of crisis. Through it all ran the threads of a cliffhanging international negotiation on which the interests of many parties and nations hung.
Even before the 39 had departed Beirut, the debate over how Ronald Reagan had "done" was in full swing. We think he used the available forms of pressure and persuasion generally well. The Shiite cause got some publicity, but the group that actually did the hijacking finally yielded the hostages to other Shiites and to the Syrians. Mr. Reagan maintained the principle of not dealing directly with terrorists. He acted toward the Israelis in a way that let them maintain their position that they were intending to return their hostages anyway. He could survive his one possible gaffe, when his threat of retaliation boomeranged, because he had already made the key diplomatic move of engaging the prestige of Syria's Hafez Assad, the one man in a position to consummate a deal.
There is a continuing debate over retaliation. Most people seem to understand it would be reckless to put at added peril the seven Americans still sought in Lebanon. Syria's policies doubtless have contributed to the original TWA seizure and to the continued detention of the seven, but it would be bizarre to retaliate against a country that President Reagan last night thanked for its role in freeing the TWA passengers. Mr. Assad gets special credit for removing the final four of the 39 from their Shiite captors. It is fair to expect him to extend himself further and extricate the seven.
Sobered by these real-life complications, some of those drawn to the use of force are turning to the idea of taking a decision now to use force the next time, leaving only the details of targeting and timing to be arranged. We share the urge to make the hijackers pay. But this suggestion has an unrealistic New Year's Resolution quality to it. The effort to avoid the usual frazzling argument over force by setting future policy on automatic amounts to evading the really difficult features of these terrible events. The next time it won't be any easier to settle on "details" of targeting and timing. The country could come to regret terribly this kind of declaration of intent. The president could lose his freedom.
Terrorism is awful, but America is not totally in thrall to it. President Reagan showed in this crisis that leadership can provide certain comforts and results. This event also seems to have spurred the myriad essential steps of vigilance, in defensive preparations and in intelligence and diplomacy, that constitute the first line of defense. Some people think of accommodating grimly to terrorism. Better to accommodate sensibly to the fight against it.