The dramatic return of the Rev. Benjamin Weir is a cruel reminder that theater is a large part of what terrorism and hostage-taking is all about. But his appearance on television, and the various reactions it triggered, serves also as a useful reminder that there is a whole lot of real stuff going on backstage that we cannot and should not see: the less insistence on knowing exactly what the government is doing, the easier it will be to practice a sensible and sophisticated counter-terrorist policy.

And the more we come to accept that this is a dirty, devious, shadowy business, the easier it will be to deal with the tormenting dilemma of every hostage-taking: the value to be placed on innocent lives. More than any moments of high drama in the case of the passengers on TWA Flight 847, the performance of Rev. Weir defines the difference between what has to be said in these matters and what has to be done.

Of the seven hostages still in captivity, Weir was obviously picked out for release by his captors for a particular purpose. He had lived in Lebanon for 31 years, which has to have given him a special understanding of the forces tearing that country apart, and a certain sympathy as well. Himself a prisoner for 16 months, simple compassion for the plight of the six remaining captive Americans would have been enough to make him an eloquent advocate of an urgent effort to negotiate their release on the only terms he knew of: the release of 17 convicted terrorists in Kuwaiti jails.

So we have another hostage drama on center stage: interviews with the families; biographical briefs of the six still captive; pleas for sustained publicity. "Please don't let (the story) get buried again," Weir's wife, Carol, implored. "You must keep it alive."

But that's exactly where the government's dilemma lies. There is no hostage "story" unless something visible or presentable is happening. You have only to recall how quickly these seven Americans, once kidnapped in isolated incidents, went off our screen until the sudden, shocking hijacking of a whole planeload of passengers. Recall, as well, how quickly those seven again went off our screen after the plight of the TWA passengers had been resolved. Now they are back before us with Weir calmly telling a nationally televised news conference of their captors' threat to kill them or to kidnap more Americans.

There is still more as the administration plays its high-principled part. The White House repeats the ritual refusal to "give in to the demands of terrorists." The State Department makes the predictable promise to "continue to do everything possible consistent with U.S. policy to obtain the expeditious release of the remaining six hostages. . . . This is one of the highest priorities of the administration."

Of course it is. But those are not statements of "policy" for the simple reason that there is no one-size-fits-all "policy," or at least none that can be laid out in a comforting or convincing way. The president said as much in a brief encounter with reporters: "Unfortunately we can't tell even the families all of the things we are doing, so we just have to take (the) criticism, but it is not justified."

He was right on both counts. The criticism isn't justified. The critics can have no way of knowing what the government is doing and the reason is that what the government is clearly doing is to try to cut a deal which it could not acknowledge even if it worked.

There was, you will recall, absolutely and positively no connection between the release of the TWA passengers and the Lebanese prisoners in Israeli jails. And yet, in due course, those Lebanese prisoners, mostly Shiites, were released. If there was no connection, you have to wonder what all the diplomatic sleight-of-hand was about and what impelled Lebanese Shiite leader Nabih Berri to be so forthcoming in the end.

Similarly, when Ronald Reagan says his administration is doing the things he can't even tell the hostage families about, you have to suspect that he is saying something more (through Syrian or Iranian or other intermediaries) than "pretty please." Ask any real expert on terrorism exactly how you could cut a deal for those 17 terrorist convicts in Kuwait, and he will tell you something wonderfully opaque, like "We may never know." The point is that some could be released, or maybe all, and nobody could absolutely prove a connection -- or even that it had happened.

I'm not saying that's how it will work out, or even that it will work out. I'm simply suggesting that, if something does work out, the best advice for those who might be curious about how it happened is this: accept the dark nature of this dismal business, and don't ask.