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Respect ex-hostages' privacy, experts urge

Respecting the privacy of the 52 ex-hostages and recognizing that each of them is an individual with particular experiences and needs is the best way for the American public -- and news media -- to help ease their return to freedom, according to longtime students of prisoner readjustment.

A balance needs to be struck between the public's interest in the former captives and the right of the 52 themselves for privacy, says Prof. Charles R. Figley, director of the Purdue University-based task force that studies family adjustment to crises.

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"Points of balance" now being recommended by Mr. Figley, and other hostage specialists interviewed separately, include:

* Keep national and local celebrations dignified and brief. If they are gotten over with at the beginning of the return, the former captives and their families then can enjoy more privacy.

* Spare the 52 the pressures of proposals for commercial ventures, book-writing contracts, and publicity aimed to capitalize on their ordeal.

* Be aware that the ex-hostages have individually different perspectives on the ordeal of captivity, and that especially compared with Americans at large they have very different perceptions of the crisis and should not be expected to reach the same conclusions as those who experienced the crisis only through television or other secondhand means.

* Avoid psychological speculations or cloaking the 52 with descriptions like "prisoners of war" or "military heroes." These are not accurate terms for their specific ordeal, and could create confusion for them.

Achieving such a "balanced" approach for receiving the ex-hostages, however, could prove no easy feat.

Already local and national officials are dashing forward with dazzling plans for the return. New York City plans the biggest ticker-tape parade in its history. The 52 are starting to get offers of free vacations from resorts and lifetime tickets to baseball games. Hometowns are planning parades and community events, although some of the 52 have expressed a desire for a quiet return home.

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Hostage specialists seem resigned to the inevitability of national and local celebrations -- though some have advised against them. But Americans have simply been too involved in the crisis over the past year not to celebrate the hostages' freedom in some way.

Actually, celebrations that are moderate, relatively brief, and held at the beginning of the return could ease readjustment in the long run, argues Professor Figley. They would give the American people a chance to show some very important appreciation for what the 52 and their families have endured, allow much of the public's basic curiosity to be satisfied at the outset, and allow Americans to formally put a dark chapter behind them. But no celebrations should be planned, he cautions, without consulting the hostage families.

Official plans of the US State Department are still unsettled. Much will depend on examinations of the 52 now under way in Germany. It is known, however , that the former captives will be brought home in a few days to a secret location where they will be reunited with their families for several days. The State Department then plans some public ceremony in Washington.

Some hostage specialists warn strongly against the careless use of labels and categories for measuring the ex- hostages and their experiences. Brian Jerkins, a Rand Corporation researcher whose research into political violence has brought him into contact with many former hostages, warns against psychological frameworks that could assume from the outset that the ex-hostages will have more problems than they may actually have.

Some of the 52, he adds, may give unexpected views of their captivity and captives -- even some laudatory comments (although early reported comments by the freed Americans give no hint of such inclination). It would be a mistake, he believes, to label any unexpectedly favorable description of the Iranian captors as the "Stockholm syndrome," a term popularized to refer to the way some hostages became sympathetic toward their captor during a Swedish bank robbery incident.

Other hostage specialists warn against burdening the 52 by carelessly cloaking them in the image of "military heroes" or "prisoners of war."

Dr. Donald T. Lunde, Standford law professor-psychiatrist who interviewed veterans and former hostages from the Vietnam war and the Pueblo spy ship incident, says the term "prisoner of war" could have very unfair legal implications for some of the military personnel held hostage. "Some of the Marine guards were kids just out of high school. Some may be doubtful about whether they properly carried out their duties. . . . I think President Reagan or the secretary of defense should come out openly and say that this is not a case like the Pueblo."

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