Was Egypt's President Mubarak lying when he said the Achille Lauro hijackers had left Egypt in the custody of the Palestine Liberation Organization? U.S. officials swore they were still in Egypt. Were the Italians too trusting in their faith that the PLO would render justice? Were they less than truthful in their protestations that they did not know that an American had been killed when they agreed to a safe-conduct deal for the hijackers?

The ship's captain reported that "everybody is in good health" when he must have known that Leon Klinghoffer had been murdered. Ronald Reagan seemed not to know more than Mubarak of what was going on. He was even more trusting than the Italians -- for one brief moment -- of the PLO's sense of justice. And so it went.

We can pick at these discrepancies or look for some easy lesson in the skillful capture of the pirates -- and make things worse. Or we can accept the frenzy of events, the flaring tempers of the moment, the uneven or conflicting intelligence reports, the multiplicity of purposes, the divergent and urgent concerns of the parties to the rescue. And we can suspect, while never knowing, a high probability that the bittersweet ending involved more delicate contrivance than meets the eye.

The latter course pays richer dividends if what's wanted is a clearer comprehension of the infinite diversity and complexity of what is loosely lumped under terrorism: hijackings, kidnappings, car bombings, assassinations -- all the ways extremist groups pursue political aims by viciously unconventional war.

The first lesson of the Achille Lauro affair is that it fits no past pattern precisely, which is why it can set no safe, firm precedent. That is also why the often ragged and seemingly irresolute efforts of those seeking to work a way out of it may deserve better marks than they were getting when the heat was on.

Ronald Reagan's performance makes the point. Attention riveted on his fumble of the suggestion that PLO punishment of the pirates would be good enough; the implication of some sort of statehood for the PLO is obviously not U.S. policy. But the president's recovery was forthright. The rest of what he had to say was a model of reason, realism and restraint. It is worth recapturing, since much of it was lost in the shuffle of confusing and contradictory official statements and anonymous administration briefings.

The president made no sweeping promises of justice -- or revenge. He would "make every effort" to see that the hijackers were prosecuted: "We're going to try to do this in a legal manner." Retaliation? "The time for action which could have been taken by us is past, and was ended when the rescue was made."

He spoke of "this terrorism . . . that is going on in the world" as "the most frustrating thing" to deal with. "You want to say retaliate when this is done, get even," he went on. "But then what do you say when you find out that you are not quite sure that a retaliation would hit the people who were responsible for the terror and you might be killing innocent people? So you swallow your gorge and don't do it."

Sensitive to larger U.S. interests in the region and to Egypt's role in the sputtering "peace process," he went out of his way to give Egypt's Mubarak the benefit of doubt. While other officials were denouncing Egypt for concessions to terrorists, the president was prepared to concede that the Egyptians -- and the Italians as well -- might not have known of the murder on board when the bargain was struck to give the hijackers safe conduct for release of the hostages. The president said he was having enough trouble himself getting all the information. He could understand that others might be having the same trouble.

Thus was the sage set for a delicate denouement. It takes nothing away from the capture of the pirates to note that something more than masterful use of American force almost has to have been involved. Before the Egyptians resolved their bind by sending the hijackers off under PLO custody in an unarmed, commercial Egyptian airliner with an Egyptian crew, they must have considered assorted eventualities: that Tunisia as well as Algeria would not grant landing rights; that an American aerial escort was conveniently placed to intercept; that an Italian airfield was within range.

The result was that a variety of Egyptian, Italian, American and other interests were served. Principles of "no sanctuary" and justice were usefully reinforced. But the most lasting lesson lies in the president's markedly different approach. Instead of talking big, which has made past performance look embarrassingly small, he carefully talked small. This made the ultimate success that much bigger.