What do hostage-takers want? How should nations respond?
These two questions have been resurrected by the standoff in Lima between the Peruvian government of President Alberto Fujimori and the Tupac Amaru guerrillas holding 83 hostages in the home of the Japanese ambassador.
The tense episode unfolding in Lima illustrates evolving motives of terrorist groups over the years. More than ever before, say policymakers and terrorism specialists, such groups are seeking political legitimacy.
"All hostage takers get immense publicity, but to what end?" asks Brian Jenkins, vice chairman of Kroll Security Associates. He considers it improbable that the 20 Tupac Amaru guerrillas invaded the Japanese residence Dec. 17 simply to spring colleagues from Peruvian prisons.
"I think," he adds, "what you can infer so far is that, ultimately, becoming a legitimate Peruvian political party may be their long-term goal."
The Tupac Amaru guerrillas are different from hostage-takers in the Arab world. "On the one hand [Muslim terrorists of the modern era] considered themselves downtrodden and historically abused," says Helmut Sonnenfeldt of the Brookings Institution. "On the other, they believed they were on the leading edge of a great movement."
But Mr. Jenkins believes the Peruvian guerrillas' conduct shows the group's real intentions. Among the hostages the Tupac Amaru released is the ambassador from Guatemala, a country where an active guerrilla movement has long fought against the government. "Letting the ambassador go was the Tupac Amaru's way of telling other guerrilla movements around the world, 'It's OK to give up armed struggle and get into the political process,' " he says. The Guatemalan government signed a peace agreement with its guerrilla movement on Dec. 29.
Since the mid-1950s, most of the world's armed conflicts have been internal civil and guerrilla wars. Terrorism - including hostage-taking - has been the weapon of the weak.
But the world has no uniform policy on responding to such events. A 1976 attempt to draft a United Nations treaty on hostage-taking died after opposition by Arab governments, some of whom feared that it would hamper the PLO and other anti-Israeli groups.
US policy, meanwhile, "is not to make any concessions," says one government official. "The feature that distinguishes a common crime from a terrorist crime is political motivation. No act of terrorism is justified - ever." But Adm. Stansfield Turner, CIA director in the Carter administration and author of the book "Terrorism and Democracy," sees a contradiction between US policy and action. "Every president since George Washington who has confronted a serious hostage problem has negotiated, made concessions, dealt with terrorists," he says. That contradiction between official policy and private actions has been a longstanding practice in the US. How other governments respond, especially when a hostage crisis is playing out in their own countries, is more complicated.
In Peru, neither tough-minded President Fujimori nor his senior military commanders are anxious to try rescuing the hostages by force. They know the statistics in these situations: A majority of hostage crises end peacefully and almost always the terrorists' demands are not met. Moreover, 80 percent of the hostages killed in such standoffs die during armed rescue attempts.
The face-to-face negotiations in Lima have raised hopes the standoff will end peaceably, although the prospects are for a difficult period of bargaining. "This episode," Jenkins says, "is not going to change the balance of power in Peru."