AT 11:57 a.m. on Jan. 20, 1981, the oath of office was being sworn by the man nearby, who had defeated him.President Jimmy Carter briefly closed his eyes. He was praying, he later said, for the hostages. Carter looked haggard. His eyes were red from two sleepless nights of trying to conclude the hostage crisis in Tehran. Even in the Capitol Rotunda, just before going out before the crowd, aide Gary Sick had phoned to report that no jet had left the tarmac in Iran. The ceremony did not face the usual direction, eastward, toward the anticipated hostage drama. Instead, it faced west. It was the first inauguration ever held on the west steps of the Capitol, to symbolize Ronald Reagan's debt to the Western states that had been the base of his support in his presidential campaigns of 1968, 1976, and 1980. As a White House reporter, I was watching from a front row this counterpoint of apparent humiliation for Carter and conquest for Reagan. The prize, the hostages' release, began a half hour later, at 12:25 p.m. Back at the White House, ordinary citizen Carter left by limousine, not helicopter, for Andrews Air Force Base and a flight to Weisbaden, Germany, to greet the freed hostages as Reagan was heading down Pennsylvania Avenue to his new official residence. Why did Khomeini release the hostages now, in this manner? I remember asking. After 444 days of holding the Americans hostage, had he proven he could bedevil the mighty Americans? Had he taken revenge on Carter for arranging the peace between Israel and Egypt, much as Sadat's role would later be avenged by assassination? Might a fresh start with the Reagan administration be to his advantage? No one had a clue. Now, captivity is a powerful image. Historically, it is associated with the carrying away of the people of Israel and of Judah into Babylonia and Assyria, after Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed. The many hostage crises, including the current one involving Americans in Lebanon and an exchange of Arab and Israeli prisoners, play on the emotions of millions of citizens of all countries. That hostages are pawns, bystanders really to someone else's drama, heightens the emotional toll. More recently Gary Sick has said that William Casey, then managing the Reagan campaign, had secretly flown to Madrid in 1980 and met with individuals linked to Tehran. His purpose: to head off what had been called an "October surprise" - a deal by Carter to get the hostages out of Iran just before the November election. True? With Casey gone, it would be hard to prove even if it were true. But Congress, rightly, will look into the matter anyway. Motives are hard to sort out. When do captors become captives of their own tactic? Hostage-taking is intended to play on the emotions, to frighten, to project an imaginary power. It is actually the impotent's weapon. When captivity is ostensibly imposed by a superior human force, Babylonian or otherwise, the victims and those who identify with them appeal to a higher power or justice to correct the situation. Isn't it interesting that political leaders will often ask citizens to pray during a crisis but then not acknowledge the effectiveness of prayer after the crisis has been resolved? "Thou has led captivity captive," the familiar Handel aria says. How do we know that the prayers of Jimmy Carter - and of millions who prayed with him - had not gotten those two jets off the Tehran runway? It is hard to evaluate the shadowy world of spies, terrorists, hostages, and arms deals. That is the nature of skulduggery, to appear mysterious. It is better to stay away from it. Reagan and George Bush did not escape its taint. Whatever Casey was up to earlier, after he became central intelligence chief he sure got the administration into trouble: The Iran-contra scandal evened the humiliation score between Reagan and Carter. Carter appeared to try too hard. He was said to be "hostage to the hostage crisis." A rescue attempt failed. But what would have been said of him if he hadn't tried? Hostage-taking would use injustice to correct injustice. This is so manifestly wrong as to reveal its impotence. It is inherently a failed tactic. We celebrate its victims' return. Its perpetrators slip into oblivion.