THIS is a time of joy and gratitude, now that the last 39 former hostages of TWA Flight 847 have their freedom. Ever since the 153 passengers and crew were hijacked over Greece on June 14 they have had the prayers and support of family, friends, communities, and strangers in a splendid example of people pulling together in adversity. Sunday the prayers were answered.
The peaceful release was far better than resorting to retaliation or applying economic pressure, which might well have been counterproductive. It was a victory for diplomacy and the patient persistence of officials from several nations and from international agencies, who sought to resolve the crisis and bring about the hostages' freedom. All who made such efforts have earned the world's appreciation.
The full story of the hostages' ordeals and of the precise efforts to release them has not yet come out. It cannot be forgotten that one passenger was wantonly murdered by the hijackers and that several persons, including seven Americans, still are held by unknown kidnappers in Lebanon. As President Reagan noted Sunday evening, the international community should make strong efforts to free them.
But already it can be noted that several winners, besides the hostages and their families, have emerged from this situation.
President Reagan is one. The freeing of the hostages, with only one fatality, is a vindication of the generally restrained handling by the President and his administration. Pressures for stronger action, including some sort of military response, must not have been easy to resist, although surveys did indicate that the majority of the American public supported the administration's approach.
Both President Reagan and Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres can say that the hostages were released without either of their nations having publicly negotiated or struck deals with the hijackers or subsequent captors, although indirect talks were held.
Syrian President Hafez Assad has strengthened both his and Syria's influence in the Middle East by having played a role in pressuring at least two different Lebanese Shiite factions to give up the hostages.
The Soviet Union may turn out to have improved its position in the Middle East, inasmuch as it is the backer of Syria.
By his very visible role the relatively moderate Nabih Berri strengthened himself against more radical contestants for Lebanese Shiite leadership.
Mr. Berri has improved his position for playing a more significant role in a future Lebanese government, should there be a redistribution of power away from the Christians and Lebanese President Amin Gemayel, himself a Christian. The current Christian-led Lebanese government, whose effective authority is largely confined to East Beirut, played no discernible role in the hostage drama.
The drawn-out hostage situation made the world aware that 735 Lebanese prisoners, mostly Shiites, remain jailed in Israel; their release was the demand of the original hijackers. These prisoners have not been charged with crimes; the US State Department and President Reagan have said that their transfer by Israeli forces across the border from Lebanon violates the Geneva Accord. Israeli officials have said they would be released as the security situation in southern Lebanon warrants; from the Lebanese perspective these prisoners thus are hostages, too.
The Shiites held in Israel should be released promptly. Failure to do so would invite future terrorism, as Berri has warned.
The difficult problem of preventing successful terrorist incidents once again has been brought into focus. Steps to increase baggage and passenger security, now under way in several airports, are only part of the answer. Nations should work to develop a process for dealing with terrorism, through diplomacy if possible but by force if essential. In sensitive situations such as hijackings and kidnappings, the existence of a clear process contributes to prompt and carefully thought-out responses, and can aid in successful resolution.
Nothing in the resolution of the TWA case so far is likely to discourage terrorism.
International agreements ought to be reached that enable governments to bring to justice perpetrators of violence such as the person or persons who murdered the US seaman aboard TWA Flight 847.
Yet none of these cautions detracts from the happiness of the hostage release: It is a time for rejoicing.