Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, the Polish liberator in midnight shades, last week ventured into the bright media lights of New York. And while there for the U.N. General Assembly meeting, he made a most bizarre offer for freeing the 250 to 300 political prisoners he holds. If in the coming elections, which Solidarity has asked Poles to boycott as a show of nonconfidence in the regime, 70 to 80 percent of the electorate turn out, he might then grant the prisoners amnesty.

His stated rationale is that this would prove that Poland had returned to "normalcy." The transparent threat is that if Poles listen to "the Voice of America and the so-called Radio Free Europe" and other provocateurs, their leaders stay in jail. The people have a choice. Cooperate, and your leaders go free. Or protest, and they don't. The consequences are on your head. Your choice.

Sounds familiar. This is, of course, the language of all hostage-takers. It is what Shiite fanatics say, whether kidnapping the meek Rev. Weir or four Soviet diplomats: Free our brother terrorists (who blew up a couple of embassies in Kuwait), stop your Syrian allies (driving on Tripoli), or else. We don't want to harm the hostages. Your choice.

Hostage-taking immediately conjures up the image of a thug in a ski mask. Not so. In our day there is a genteel end of the business, and it is reserved for governments. Jaruzelski's extortion stands out because the threat was so explicit and the ransom (voter turnout) so unusual. But there is a another kind of extortion that takes place on a far vaster scale and runs like a business. It is blackmail the old fashioned way: for money.

Consider the vigorous and rarely reported traffic in dissidents from East to West Germany. It works this way. The East German government arrests an undesirable. It lets the West Germans know that for certain humanitarian considerations, say, 100,000 marks, it will release him to the West. Some negotiation, then a deal is struck. East Germany gets its hard currency (since 1963, over 2 billion marks), the dissident gets his freedom, and West Germany gets to perform a mercy.

One of the unstated aims -- and ironies -- of d,etente was to encourage this kind of business. It was thought, at least in the West, that in return for Western trade and technology, the Soviets would allow more emigration. The Soviets, though, proved sqeamish about acknowledging the deal. They took offense at the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which permits trade concessions (Most Favored Nation status) only for those communist regimes that liberalize emigration.

The Soviets, and the Nixon-Ford administration, for that matter, did not want such arrangements codified in law. Still, Jackson-Vanik passed. And although the Soviet Union rejected it, not everyone did. For years Rumania, for example, has enjoyed a brisk trade in souls.

Your choice. What to do? Much of the talk about hostage-taking focuses on the dilemma of the ransomer: what may be yielded in money, obeisance and principle to rescue innocents. The neglected question is, What does it take to be a hostage-taker?

One kind of hostage-taking is the kind you see in the movies: the cornered bank robber or the distraught ex-spouse takes hostage a customer or a child. That kind is born of desperation. The other kind is born of calculation. To my mind, it is the more monstrous, since it issues not from distress but from moral blankness. What does it take to put a gun, methodically and cold-bloodedly, to the head of an innocent? Above all, it requires abolition of the notion of innocence.

And that is a specialty not, as one tends to think, just of terrorist ideologies, but of totalitarian ideologies. Their great theme -- and te source of their great crimes -- is that life is entirely politicized. There is no independent social space. Art, culture, family, friendship are inextricably political. And where everything is politics, everyone is a politician. There are no innocents.

The debate over what totalitarianism is and whether it even exists has been going on for decades. There have been a dozen attempts to define it. A couple of years ago, I thought I'd found a marker, a way to pick the totalitarian out of a crowd: look for the regime that gets 99 percent of the vote. It is a pretty good rule of thumb. Perhaps this is a better one: a talent for hostage-taking, grand and petty.

Gen. Jaruzelski is, after all, only an aspiring totalitarian. He will never get his 99 percent. He does not yet have the reach to achieve the totalitarian's coveted electoral marker. But he has the grasp of another totalitarian idea: he, too, is in the hostage business.