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Lose the dead weight

Looking at the world in my own bizarre way, I always try to avoid the anger and hatred that manage to rip the soul out of even the most well-meaning inhabitants of this planet. Well, most of the time, anyway. But over the summer something caught my eye, and made me want to scream.

No, it wasn't Singapore.

When British hostage John McCarthy and, later, American Edward A. Tracy were released from captivity in early August, the news media was filled with some delightfully meaningless hoopla. That these courageous men survived during their years of imprisonment to see freedom once again is certainly newsworthy. But their odyssey, now almost forgotten, was warped in the news in a needless, destructive, dangerous way -- endangering the lives of the hostages who still remain in the Mideast and setting some nasty precedents for future responses to terrorist acts.

As pictures of flags and salutes and cheerful crowds flowed via satellite to the United States, everyone, it seems, was forgiven. A host of American and international officials, who stymied the military's plans for hostage rescues and whose impotence left much of the world community paralyzed in the face of terrorism, leapt forward to shake the former captives' hands with pride. The US State Department, on the eve of McCarthy's release, boasted of its establishment of a special committee to welcome American hostages.

What does that mean, anyway?

Even the Syrian and Iranian governments, who kidnapped the hostages in the first place, were cheered for letting them go.

There is so much cheering, in fact that one might easily forget that noncombatants are still being held against their will, and that people are still trying to kill Salmon Rushdie, for writing a book they didn't like.

And then I watched the news and got angry.

The official reason for McCarthy's release had been to relay a written statement from Islamic Jihad, the terrorist organization which held McCarthy, to UN Secretary General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar, a politician famous for his collection of leaden footwear. In front of an eager world press, McCarthy presented the letter to de Cu'ellar. Looking like a goofy Ed MacMahon, de Cu'ellar stood there, grinning stupidly and clutching the terrorist's letter like a check for $50,000 from Publisher's Clearinghouse. With cameras flashing and tape rolling, de Cu'ellar then stood there with the ransom note -- motionless -- visibly uncomfortable with his situation, yet doing nothing to rectify it.

Politicians may be forced to do a distasteful deed in their careers, but my question is: Do they have to like it?

With a gun at his head and the lives of fellow captives at stake, McCarthy was forced to become a perverse mailman -- a messenger-boy for his tormentors, delivering an unknown message from individuals who, by their actions, deserve no audience. That McCarthy was paraded on TV in performance of this death duty more than perturbed me. Don't we owe him more than that? De Cu'ellar greeted the terrorists' demands almost gratefully. Can we tolerate that?

Was it a concern for the lives of other hostages -- some kind of sneaky altruism -- that produced this ten-second photo spot on the evening news, an absurd picture of a victim and a do-little gently caressing a ransom note like a letter from home?

I asked myself how de Cu'ellar should have handled himself. Did he need to welcome the note in that pointless display, only to realize his error and stand impotent? Or should coverage of the delivery of the terrorist's letter have been relegated to a brief confirmation by UN officals -- just public enough for the terrorists to see their mission had been accomplished, but just obscure enough to avoid legitimizing the pirates? Why did de Cu'ellar, a respected diplomat, react so poorly? Was he trying to be diplomatic? Why? The note was little more than an extortion piece.

How could he recognize Islamic Jihad in this way, rewarding for its hostage-taking?

Can we blame the journalists who repeated this soundbite over and over again? Do we even owe the terrorists anything for returning to McCarthy what they so rudely stole from him five years ago? Is there not something higher at stake -- like dignity, and honor, and truth, and justice, and the lives of all the people who might never have been taken hostage if, this time, we react to terrorism with strength and not the timidity, goofy smiling, and wretched cluelessness that has failed us in the past?

Should McCarthy, or de Cu'ellar, for that matter, have burned that letter the moment McCarthy was safe?

That would have been a statement, all right, but would it have been prudent? No, but I probably would have done it anyway.

Call me hazardous, I guess.

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Matthew H. Hersch, a sophomore, is associate opinion editor of The Tech.