Washington — Relieved and buoyed, a grateful nation on Sunday awaited the homecoming of its hostages. The ordeal was almost over. Americans poured into churches, congregated on town streets, or quietly gathered with family and friends anticipating the success of President Reagan's strenuous diplomatic efforts.
The national mood is not without a tinge of sorrow. One American was murdered by the hijackers. Seven other Americans kidnapped in Lebanon over the past 18 months remain captives. The United States continues to press Syria to secure their release. Some Frenchmen and a Briton also are being held hostage by Shiite extremists.
Many Americans remain bitter, perplexed about why the US is increasingly the target of terrorist attacks and frustrated that it seems unable to strike back.
``It's time we stopped taking it like this,'' said a clerk at a local drug store as he heard the news of the hostages' release. ``If we don't let those people know that we're going to fight back, there'll just be more and more threats like this.''
As high expectation pervades the country, there is also sober reflection on the lessons of the hijack crisis. Diplomatic experts give the President high credit for a posture of restraint throughout the ordeal -- despite his strong antiterrorist remarks over the weekend that seem to have contributed to a last-minute delay.
Diplomatic specialists draw these early conclusions about the incident:
It is persevering, patient, flexible diplomacy -- not the use of force -- that holds the key to resolving such problems. Tough rhetoric is counterproductive when it is not backed by deeds.
The US is better able to deal with terrorists when the President does not let a crisis consume the office and stop his normal activities.
Terrorism is not a passing phenomenon. The US will have to live for a long time with an unrelenting sense of hostility from certain elements of the Islamic world.
Combating the growing violence will require international cooperation and increased attention to airport security, readiness of a US attack force, and other antiterrorist measures.
Terrorism in the Middle East can ultimately be checked only through pursuing a vigorous US policy that thoughtfully addresses the forces of change in the region and helps allay the political and social grievances giving rise to violence.
Experienced diplomats also applaud the administration for not permitting a public linkage between release of the American hostages and freeing of the 735 Shiite prisoners held by Israel. Israel says release of the Shiites will take place as originally planned. Even though it required a deal to free the hostages, it is not being called a deal -- a charade to some people, but a necessary diplomatic stance to others.
``If people think that taking American hostages will get the United States to bring pressure on another government to redress their grievances, that is not a good position for us to be in,'' says U. Alexis Johnson, a former US undersecretary of state. ``Whatever the rights or wrongs of the Israeli action -- and though the issues could not be divorced -- both sides have my sympathy in trying to divorce them and they have succeeded to a degree.''
With the Iran hostage experience and now the Beirut crisis sharply etched in the American consciousness, many experts urge that the US begin to devote more concentrated attention to the turbulent Middle East.
``The United States is riding a tiger in the Middle East and, like it or not, we can't get off,'' says Robert Hunter, a specialist at Georgetown University's Center for Strategic and International Studies. By failing to follow through on the Camp David accords, by turning a passive eye to Israel's invasion of Lebanon, by being perceived by Lebanese Muslims as a defender of the Christian Maronite government, the US has lost much credibility in the Arab world and suffers as a consequence, Dr. Hunter says.
Other analysts say it is simplistic to think that compromise political solutions will automatically defuse extremism in the region. Behind much terrorism lies a deep hatred of the West, of its wealth and influence. Such animosity will not be assuaged by progress on isolated issues.
``There will be an unrelenting sense of hostility to the US -- as in Iran -- and it is spreading to other parts,'' says a former high-ranking US diplomat. ``We're the symbols of all the things that are the source of their disaffection. The terrorism is symptomatic of a broader malaise to which there is no simple answer.''
``Even if we could solve the Palestinian problem, that would not make everyone happy,'' the diplomat says. ``The extremist fringe will remain extremist. A solution of the Arab-Israeli conflict could even lead to some increase in violence.''
Joseph Sisco, a former US undersecretary of state, agrees that terrorism will continue. But he points to the urgency of moving ahead on the diplomatic front. ``The hour is late,'' he comments. ``While terrorism will not be resolved, one of the elements of manageability is to get on with trying to resolve the issues.''
Whether the US should use force when terrorist attacks occur is now a subject of intense debate. Even those who criticize the Reagan administration's record on the Middle East support a tough line against terrorists.
Mr. Sisco stresses the need to develop the Delta force to be capable of almost immediate action in terrorist situations -- the kind of force that could have landed quickly at the Algiers airport in the first hours of the hijacking. Perhaps, he says, the US needs a constant-alert force like the Strategic Air Command.
Diplomatic experts also do not rule out retaliatory measures following a terrorist act.
The US has more intelligence today about who the terrorists are, where their training camps are, and who their supporters are. Many feel retaliatory attacks are warranted.
``You can't allow what you feel about the inadequacy of US policy to color your judgment on the hijack issue,'' says Michael Sterner, a consultant and former State Department official. ``The blood is up among a large sement of armed gunmen who are poor and oppressed all these years and, like a bunch of hornets, are a real danger.
``We have to take the toughest possible line,'' he says. ``If there's a perception in the area that this has paid off, we will be in for a lot of trouble down the pike.''