IT is natural for the media to feature the concerns of relatives over the two American prisoners in Iraq. It is natural for politicians to bare their chests and demand military reprisals. But history teaches that dramatizing the situation of hostages -- and that's what they are -- only increases their value to their captors and may make their return more costly.
When young Iranian militants seized the American Embassy and 65 hostages in Tehran in 1979, indications were they would remain only briefly as they had done a few months before. But when word came that they were getting pervasive coverage on American television, they settled down for a long siege. They enjoyed the furor they were creating in American politics and their own enhanced position among the Khomeini revolutionaries.
They inspired an ABC nightly television program, flatteringly called ''America Held Hostage.'' And they must have been gratified to know that they contributed mightily to the reelection defeat of President Carter, who had befriended the hated Shah.
The lesson of American vulnerability to hostage-taking was not lost on other terrorists. Iranian-guided guerrillas in Lebanon abducted 16 Americans between 1982 and 1988. They exploited American sentimentality and the resulting political pressures to propel the Reagan administration into illegally trading arms for hostages.
Iraq's Saddam Hussein, preparing to invade Kuwait, told Ambassador April Glaspie he was sure no American politician would risk the lives of his countrymen in defense of the emirate.
When the Bush administration started a military buildup in Saudi Arabia, Iraq seized hundreds of Americans and distributed them around Iraqi weapon sites in order, Saddam said, to deter an American attack. They were released after President Bush announced that targeting would be done without regard to American hostages.
Keep cool, Saddam is watching
It's hard to say whether the two Americans who strayed into Iraq will be the makings of a new hostage crisis. It is likely that Saddam is testing the waters to see how much excitement he can generate in America, especially in the political arena, and how much leverage that will give him in pressing for an easing of sanctions.
In these circumstances, the best advice for candidates, the media, and the families is: Cool it. Every time America shows itself to be vulnerable to hostage-taking, it invites more hostage-taking.