Learning from the hostages

"I feel your constant faith and abiding love." It sounds like one of the televised holiday messages from the American hostages in Iran. But these are words written home by one of the long-held American captives from the USS Pueblo in North Korea a dozen years ago. Then, as now, the captors made demands to which there was "no alternative" -- but then they unexpectedly agreed to a release plan. Now, as then, the challenge to the American people is to remain constant in justifying the trust expressed by their fellow citizens in captivity abroad. And the present captors can decide as unexpectedly as those in the past that their "nonnegotiable" demands have been met so that the hostages can be released.

Meanwhile, it is not only the members of the hostage families who might take to heart what the hostages have been expressing during the past few days. Imagine them telling the rest of us in our freedom and our comfort not to worry! Imagine them decorating their Christmas tree and being able to joke about being out of uniform! Imagine them praising how well the folks at home have been coping with problems! They provide support even as they offer gratitude for it. They offer examples of qualities their country needs -- and not only in dramatic hostage situations.

"I can hold on if you can. . . ," said Joseph Hall of Elyria, Ohio. Here is a simple, eloquent mandate for America to hew to patient and honorable efforts for freeing the hostages from the captivity that has dishonored Iran's revolution.

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"All of us hostages are proud to be Americans," said Jerry Plotkin of Sherman Oaks, Calif. Here is a call to the American people and their leaders to ensure that their country remains worthy of pride. It is not just a matter of enlightened policies to preserve America's traditional moral strength abroad; it is a matter of the attitudes and actions of individual Americans. These must be such as to add up to the kind of society of freedom and firm values for which America's own revolution was fought.

Parallels with the Pueblo naval "spy ship" incident should not be pressed too far. Controversies linger about what was said and done. So far there has been no evidence that the Iranians have beaten their captives in any equivalent of what the Pueblo commander later called the North Koreans' "studied attempt to create terror among my men and myself." At the same time the Iranians bring into play religious convictions that can override the considerations of politics, power, and propaganda found in the North Korean episode.

But Muslim religious convictions can operate in the direction of mercy, as the Korean indicates. The authorities have it within their power to dispel the cynicism about their Christmas display of the hostages as propaganda. They can respond to the questions left about the condition of the hostages by the fact that not all of them appeared and that, for the rest, there was not much to go on besides the visit to all the hostages described by Ambassador Gheraieb of Algeria. As the US State Department said:

"The fact that his visit took place and that the hostages are apparently in good condition in no way diminishes the flagrant violation of international law and standards of conduct that their detention represents."

While the negotiations to end this flagrant violation continue, the Iranians ought to show their good faith by allowing regular visits to all the hostages by independent observers.

The hostages and the Americans who pray for them should have no less than this much humanity from Iran as they strive to live up to their part of the challenge.

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