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COMMENTARY : Don't Call the Hostages in Lebanon 'Forgotten' ...

January 12, 1991|SIS AND JERRY LEVIN | CNN Beirut bureau chief Jerry Levin was kidnaped on March 7, 1984, and escaped on Feb. 14, 1985. Sis Levin wrote of her experiences freeing her husband in "Beirut Diary." Their story is dramatized on ABC's "Held Hostage," airing tonight at 9. Jerry Levin will join World Vision in February as director of news and information services. Sis Levin is a doctoral candidate in international education at Columbia University. and

The six Americans still in captivity in Lebanon, as well as those who were once held there, are still very often referred to as the "forgotten" hostages. For that reason, until late last year, ABC seriously considered calling its evocative dramatization of Sis' successful do-it-yourself undertaking to free Jerry: "Forgotten."

We are glad the network changed its mind, since that catchy label all along has been distorting a point of considerable significance about the hostages.

In the sense that forgetting means no remembrance or recollection, the hostages have never been "forgotten." Neglected, yes. Rejected, yes. Also downplayed, devalued and ignored--not only by their captors but by Administration operatives with hidden agendas--but not "forgotten."

However, despite the enlightened change of title to "Held Hostage," ABC ordered some disappointing deletions and changes to the producers' script that tend to obscure the lengths to which our government went to keep the story out of the news and the government's less than commendable motivations for doing so.

As satisfactory as the movie is, we wish it would have emphasized forcefully how the series of unexplained kidnapings of American civilians in Lebanon threatened to undermine President Reagan's reelection bid in much the same way that the kidnapings of Americans in Iran a few years before had contributed to the derailing of President Carter's drive for a second term.

Knowledgeable news organizations were persuaded to suppress two crucial facts about the hostages' captivity that had been communicated secretly to the government on a videotape: The hostages seemingly random disappearances were actually collective, and they were being held for the same reason--in exchange for members of the captors' clan who had been convicted of fatal terrorist acts in Kuwait.

This pivotal self-censorship was achieved by convincing informed journalists that they faced a deadly Hobson's Choice. Publishing those facts would get the hostages killed, they were warned, while downplaying the story and giving "quiet" diplomacy a chance, they were assured, was the best way to get us freed.

Although logic dictated that hostages being held for exchange are of no use to their captors dead, Jerry's former boss, Turner Broadcasting System Chairman Ted Turner, epitomized the dilemma he was led to believe he faced by confiding to Jerry, "What did I know about terrorism? The government was supposed to be the expert."

A critical consequence of suppressing that information long after Jerry returned to freedom was the perpetuation of a myth that the hostage disappearances were an impenetrable mystery.

The suppression tended to deter examination and debate of the kidnapings' crucial foreign policy context: what the violence against Americans in Lebanon was all about and especially the role the United Sates played in provoking it. The deaths of the Marines guarding Beirut's International Airport in October, 1983, and the hostage taking that followed were the inevitable consequences of the U.S. abandoning diplomacy and dialogue and intervening in Lebanon's civil war against the Muslim majority the month before.

The government has not been helpful since then in getting the chronology straight and, curiously, neither has the media. The initial shellings of Lebanon by our naval ships often were and continue to be inaccurately characterized by the media as retaliation for the deaths of the Marines rather than the other way around. This kind of distortion of recent history was not characteristic of either President Carter's or President Bush's hostage crises.

A consequence of Reagan's lieutenants having their way with the story for so long was that in time they apparently felt they had a license to proceed with the Iran-Contra arms deal in which freeing hostages was more a means to achieving other ends rather than being an end itself. Some of those other ends were getting around the Administration's own arms embargo to Iran as well as the law banning the supply of arms to the Nicaraguan Contras, and the silencing of enterprising journalists who had begun to stumble on pieces of the story.

Have we been making too much of this aspect of the hostages in Lebanon's ordeal? We think not. And we wish ABC had been willing to make more of it. For it is significant that under the full glare of no-holds-barred press scrutiny, the American hostages taken during the administrations of Carter and Bush have been freed, while too many of those captured during Reagan's administration still are in captivity in Lebanon.

Despite this criticism, however, ABC, producer Carol Polokoff and Marlo Thomas deserve full credit and our thanks for backing a presentation that does not stereotypically demonize Arabic and Islamic culture.

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