Families have difficult role to play in hostage drama

There's been no Walter Cronkite signing off his newscast with a tally of how many days the hostages have been held. Only a few yellow ribbons are tied around trees around the country. For the families of the American hostages held in Lebanon, the vigil has been much lonelier than it was for the families of the hostages held in Iran in 1979-81, when an entire nation stood watch.

The present vigil, however, has not been a quiet one. These families have fought, cajoling and criticizing for months, to keep their relatives at the top of the US government's agenda.

Now, with the release of hostage David Jacobsen, and the hoped-for release of his fellow captives, the families' actions highlight a particularly thorny issue: the role of individuals vs. the role of government in dealing with terrorists.

``In some cases, families can be very detrimental,'' says Robert Kupperman, an expert on terrorism at Georgetown University's Center for Strategic and International Studies. ``In others, they can be very helpful.''

Brian Jenkins, an expert on terrorism at the Rand Institute, notes that families can put pressure on a government and keep hostage issues from sliding onto the back burner. He says it is only natural for families to urge officials to do everything possible.

But Mr. Jenkins and Dr. Kupperman warn that the stronger the public pressure on government officials to resolve the situation, the weaker these officials may ultimately be in trying to deal with the terrorists.

``Families see themselves as mobilizing a public expression of pressure to keep the heat on government to do whatever is necessary,'' says Jenkins. ``In that sense - although the families would never see it this way - they share a certain community with the captors.

``Because,'' he explains, `` it's the captors who also wish to build public pressure, to increase their leverage over the government to get it to yield to their demands.''

An important factor in negotiating with terrorists, he says, is that ``in order to make anything happen on the captors' side, they have to be persuaded that ... they will gain nothing by continuing to hold the hostages.

``Therefore, it's not in the interest of government to see public pressure lead to a crisis that will encourage the captors ... ,'' he adds. ``That puts the government and families, even though they're working for the same objective, at odds....''

Both Kupperman and Jenkins say they know that such facts sound callous in the face of human suffering, and neither man criticizes the activities of the hostage families. In fact, Jenkins says that their comments and actions stem from a deeply cherished Western tradition.

``Our society places an extraordinary value on the life of the individual,'' he says. ``That's one of our country's vulnerabilities to modern terrorism, particularly hostage-taking. ... It may not be in our national interest to care, but the fact is the premise this society operates on is that we will go to extraordinary lengths - fight like hell - for the life of an individual.

``That makes the release of a hostage an extraordinary triumph,'' he says. ``But it also gives the captors a certain degree of leverage.''

In addition to trying to pressure the government, the families of the hostages in Lebanon have drawn together for something else, providing one another with strength and hope. ``All the hostage families have become part of a larger family,'' says the Rev. Tom Vickers, a spokesman for the family of Terry Anderson.

Jenkins says it is understandable that the hostage families became critical of the government's efforts, that after so many months ``people's patience wears thin.'' But he also notes that it is almost impossible to judge what is actually going on behind the scenes, given the highly secretive nature of any efforts to resolve a situation involving terrorism.

``I think the government has been working very hard on this,'' says Jenkins, who has extensive contacts throughout the field of experts on terrorism. ``I know people personally who have been spending 18-hour days on this situation for months and months.''

This particular dilemma has been an especially tricky one for administration officials for several reasons, Jenkins explains. Unlike the Iranian hostage crisis, for example, the US is not dealing now with a specific government, but with a shadowy grouping of terrorists who enjoy support from extremist regimes.

And unlike the Daniloff case, it's virtually impossible for the US to communicate with the hostages in Lebanon or their captors. Finally, one of the captors' key demands, the release of terrorists imprisoned in Kuwait, is a factor out of US control. Under terms like these, Jenkins says, it's natural that the government would keep especially quiet about its efforts.

There are no clear guidelines that can be drawn in these situations, Jenkins says. But he puts the burden on government to work with hostage families, not to try to contain their disillusionment but to keep them as informed as possible about efforts to free the captives.

``Families will be doing everything they can, that's a given. You have to expect that,'' he says. ``Government will have to work very skillfully. ... It has to be very sensitive to pressures on the family.''

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