Television brings a hostage crisis almost too close to home, in all its agony and brutality. It is natural to see the Americans not only as innocent victims, cruelly confined and bargained over; they are the only innocents whose friends and families and home towns we know.
But last week, the Israeli government introduced us fleetingly to another set of innocents whose friends and families and home towns we don't know: some 31 Shiite youths arrested in Lebanon and hauled back to Israeli by departing Israeli forces along with roughly a thousand others during the spring.
So whatever do we call them? Try "hostages," and suddenly the resolution of the Beirut hostage crisis acquires a certain necessary moral symmetry. The delicate diplomatic bargaining is stripped of the moral confusion imposed on it by a high premium on the safe return of the Americans and the high principle of "not rewarding terrorism."
The framework for settlement, in short, becomes a correct eye-for-an-eye: an exchange of hostages for hostages, even while a connection is denied.
The very idea of a connection offends the Israelis, understandably, and never mind that almost one-third of these "detainees" had already been released when Shiite leader Nabih Berri demanded the release of the remaining 700-plus before he would let the Americans go.
Never mind, as well, that the Israeli government had already indicated its intention to let the rest of the Shiite "detainees" go. To have done so under pressure would have been a surrender to terrorism that would encourage more of the same. The Reagan administration loyally went along.
But last week, Vice President George Bush added an important ingredient to the only formula for resolution of the Beirut stalemate that had any promise from the start. "People held against international law should be released," he said of Israel's Shiite prisoners.
True, Secretary of State Shultz had already said the removal of these Shiites to Israel was contrary to international law. But Bush took another, crucial step: It was U.S. policy, he said, "to welcome the release of people illegally held hostage."
The vice president was quick to state that the United States was "not going to participate in linkage" of the two cases. But if the outcome is not only to be understood for what it is, but also to be perceived as fair and principled, it will be important for public opinion at home and abroad to see the Shiite holding of the American airplane passengers and the Israeli holding of its Shiite "detainees" to be, in a strict sense, of a kind.
On American television, Prime Minister Shimon Peres made it explicit: "If all of a sudden (the security situation in southern Lebanon) will become quiet, that will be one situation. If it will continue to be dangerous and tumultuous, it's another consideration." In other words, "certain conditions must be met." The Shiites in Southern Lebanon must accept the remaining Israeli military presence on their soil on Israeli terms if the remaining "detainees" in Israel are to be released.
A hostage, then, is a hostage -- by whatever unconscionable method particular hostages may be taken. George Bush made a significant contribution to clear thinking about the central issue by saying so.