They remain the forgotten Americans

The New York Times, March 26, 1986

(LONDON) -- IT'S HARD TO FIND mention in the European and American press of what the United States is doing to free its hostages who remain in Lebanon. The Reagan administration's "quiet diplomacy'' remains quiet. The forgotten Americans remain forgotten.

Somewhere in Lebanon in the last few weeks, probably chained to a radiator in a damp room, Terry A. Anderson marked the beginning of his second year in captivity. On the other side of the world, a service and candlelight vigil were held to try once more to remind everyone of his plight.

For the White House and most Americans, the disastrous United States foray into Lebanon was a painful chapter best forgotten. For Terry Anderson, the Associated Press bureau chief, and at least four other Americans, the agony is still very much a part of their lives.

Terry was abducted on the morning of March 16, 1985. He was dragged from his car by gunmen who threw him into a Mercedes and raced off toward the Shiite slums south of Beirut. Terry was not a diplomat. He was not a spy. He was a dedicated, hard-working reporter trying to make sense out of the senselessness of Lebanon.

Like Terry, his fellow prisoners are victims, not architects, of the United States' Middle East policy: Lawrence M. Jenco, a Roman Catholic priest held for 14 months; David P. Jacobsen, a hospital administrator kidnapped 10 months ago; and Thomas M. Sutherland, a dean at the American University, in Beirut, who was taken last June. The university's librarian, Peter Kilburn, who disappeared in December 1984, is thought to be in the hands of another group with different demands. A sixth American, William Buckley, a U.S. Embassy political officer, is believed to have been killed in Iran.

The abduction of Terry Anderson destroyed any lingering illusion that others of us who reported from Beirut had about journalistic immunity. In our endless debates about whether reporters were as much at risk as other Americans, Terry argued that since he did not work for the government and had made no enemies, he had nothing to fear.

Terry may not have had enemies, but the United States did. The Shiites perceived American policy as favoring the Lebanese Christians over the Moslems and Israel over the Arabs.

At the height of the U.S. Marines' confrontation with Lebanese Moslem militias and their Syrian patrons, President Reagan proclaimed he was safeguarding America's "vital interests.'' The Marines are gone now, the Lebanese are still at each other's throats and somehow the Free World has survived. The only difference is at least five Americans are rotting in captivity, and many others are dead.

The kidnappers of the Americans have offered to trade their hostages for 17 Shiites held in Kuwaiti jails. For a long time, Washington denied that was even their demand. The captives' relatives were kept in the dark. Until late last year, Reagan refused to see them.

The issue of when, or whether, to give in to terrorists is a critical one. The White House argues that by negotiating, it would invite more abductions. What the hostages  -  and those who love them  -  are having a hard time understanding is why the Reagan administration is suddenly taking this unbending position now.

"You negotiated over the hostages from the TWA plane, and such negotiations have been held repeatedly and successfully by other countries,'' the hostages wrote last fall in a joint letter to Reagan. `"You, and they, did so because you believed that saving the lives of innocent hostages should be the primary goal. We are asking for the same consideration.''

Unfortunately for Terry and the other Americans, it's easier for the White House to gamble with the lives of five unseen individuals than 39 TWA passengers or an embassy full of diplomats spotlighted in the glare of television lights, especially if the American people forget they are there.

"The American government still does not care about us,'' Terry complained last spring in a handwritten note to his sister. ``Please do your best, and move very swiftly to end my detention because I cannot take it anymore.''

That was 11 months ago. I wonder how he feels now.

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