It is a good thing the hostages came home when they did. Not just for their sake, but for ours. The yellow ribbons had begun to come out. Of all of the humiliations of hostage crises -- and there are many -- the worst is the yellow ribbons, the outerwear of helplessness.

Like the radio campaigns to turn on car headlights during the day, yellow ribbons are a well-intended show (for whom?) of "support" for the hostages' release. Unfortunately, freedom is not something that you can honk for. A show of solidarity is fine, but only if it is attached to some real action. Otherwise, yellow ribbons and headlights and all the other substitutes for action become mere advertisements of defeat.

The yellow-ribbon mentality, a kind of domestic variant of the Stockholm syndrome, springs not from cowardice or lack of nerve, but from bewilderment. A special kind of bewilderment -- that of the innocent bystander. Its plea is the bystander's plea: Why me? And its demand is the bystander's demand: to be left alone.

But, as Ronald Steel points out in the current issue of The New Republic, to be a postwar American is to give up such innocence. We are a country with values, interests and a destiny, all of which we have decided, democratically, to take abroad. We support a certain international order, which makes us, all of us, the enemy of those who are at war with that order. Bystanders may move to Geneva.

In contrast, the characteristic yellow-ribbon response to disruption of our cozy normality is to take offense. Forty years ago Walter Lippmann noted that same irritation in the American view of war as "an intolerable criminal interference with the nature of things" and "an outrage upon our privacy and upon our rights." So we with terrorism. How dare it disturb our travel, our sleep, our prime-time viewing?

Passivity and a bystander's world view are not all. A further feature of the yellow-ribbon mentality is its confusion of survival with courage. It stands to reason: If to be left alone is a great end, then surviving is a great virtue. Allyn Conwell, anchor of the terrorism show, was the subject of effusive media praise. Jane Pauley suggested to him that many Americans saw him as a hero. So what if he said over CBS that he was "distressed" by President Reagan's demand for the release, together with the TWA hostages, of the seven previously kidnapped Americans? "(N)ot wise or prudent," advised Conwell. In similar circumstances, any of us might step over the body of another American to climb out of our prison. But is it heroism?

The yellow-ribbon mentality is more than a psychological oddity. It has policy consequences. If our ideal is simply to tend our vineyards unmolested, then, when an outrage like the TWA hijacking ends, our objective becomes an immediate return to bystander status. Put it all behind us. Translated: no reaction.

While the hijacking is taking place we are told that it is too early to talk of any reaction. And after it is over, we are told it is too late. It's over. Why make trouble?

The wish to hide at all costs is embarrassing to admit. So it wears a moral cloak: How can we retaliate if it will injure innocent bystanders? (Bystanders, again.) Fine. If what is required is that any retribution be discriminate and just, there is a solution: Repeal the Executive Order prohibiting assassination. Or, better, amend it to read: ". . . except those who carry out or support terrorist attacks on U.S. citizens." Any takers?

Instead, the Reagan administration's first response was to ask Lebanon to extradite the murderers. A sad joke. There is no Lebanon. And its non-government can no more extradite terrorists than it could extricate American hostages.

The administration also called for shutting down Beirut airport. The secretary of state has asked others to join us in a boycott. What can that possibly achieve beyond clearing the runways for the exclusive use of terrorists? It takes a bomb, not a boycott, to close a runway.

Where is the president? As the advocate of a muscular foreign policy, he does not look like a worshipper at the church of the yellow ribbon. But he seems inclined to let its pacifying influence do its work. That nicely reduces the pressure on him to take any real action.

And permits him to return to his fundamental interest: taxes. White House officials told The Washington Post that Reagan would "attempt to convert his enhanced popularity" coming out of the hostage crisis, by "step(ping) up his campaign for tax reform and budget cuts."

This is an old story, perhaps the story of the Reagan presidency: a president who professes an ambitious foreign policy and then invests his vast, but finite, political capital on other, more domestic matters. The result: The defense consensus he inherited (a gift from Iran, Afghanistan and other disaster areas) has eroded. The terrorism he vowed to fight increases. And the country, awaiting the articulation of a foreign policy for non-bystanders, ties yellow ribbons.