Six Hostage Families
In a modest neighborhood out on the flatlands of Ohio, the parents of 29 -year-old hostage Steven Lauterbach wait with a patient, sober expectancy for their son to come from Iran.
The rangy Midwest fields here are plowed under. Scattered ranch-house communities are setting in for the winter. Dayton seems worlds apart from the homes of five other hostage families I visited just days before in Virginia, Maryland, Washington, D.C., and New York City.
But something in the air is distinctly familiar as Mr. and Mrs. Lauterbach and their younger son, Victor, usher me into the comfortable den of their home. It's as if a certain question is blowing through the homes of hostage families across the nation.
"Have we as a nation learned anything?" Victor, a college student at nearby Miami University, exclaims as discussion picks up on hopes for the return of the return of the hostages. "The real tragedy of all of this would be if we had gone through this year and nothing had been learned."
The point is stressed time and again among the families who have been held as captive to the turbulent, volatile hostage ordeal as their loved ones are halfway around the planet.
For these six families, the days of jumping at every bit of news about the hostages' possible release are over. Emotional ups and downs have given way to more steadied, though cautious, hopes for the future.
Those hopes go beyond the return of the 52 hostages. There are indispensable lessons to be learned, they are convinced, lessons they do not want lost in a news-media bash.
One source of their conviction is the commitment their family members have made to promote better relations between Americans and peoples abroad.
The point is instantly made when Barbara Rosen, wife of the former press attache of the United States embassy in Iran, introduces you to her small son and daughter, Alexander and Ariana -- traditional Iranian names selected by her husband, Barry, a scholar of Iranian affairs.
Or take Mary Jane Engquist, sister of one of the two women hostages. From her office at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, she helps administer US programs that adapt advanced technology to the needs of developing countries. Her hostage sister, Katherine (Kate) Koob, was the first woman to become director of a key cultural exchange organization in Tehran, the Iran-America Society. The post would demand extraordinary determination from any woman chosen to work in a culture where women seldom fill such offices.
Ironically, each of the hostage-relatives of these six families had gone to Iran to forge new US-Iranian ties withinm the guidelines of the revolutionary government of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Five had not served in the embassy before the Shah's fall in January 1979, and had arrived just months before the US embassy was seized on Nov. 4 of that year. The only one serving in the embassy during the Shah's rule, Barry Rosen, stayed on because he knew the Iranian language, loved the country, had friends there, and felt that his background would be useful.
The diverse, thoughtful reflections of the hostage families are always prefaced with gratitude for a legacy that has already left its mark: the enormous respect they have gained for the generosity of their countrymen.
The reason: a constant stream of mail and calls from friends and well-wishers , neighbors and churches, invitations for their children to attend community activities, the ceremonies marking the their relatives' captivity, and monuments established in their honor -- the list is endless.
"You find out, for one thing, that people are just not so self-centered as you might have expected," a rather awed Eugene Lauterbach says. "In fact, we have gotten very sincere letters -- an overflowing filing cabinet full of them -- expressing good wishes and prayers from people we've never seen, don't know from Adam, and probably never will. We appreciated this. We find it very moving."
Barbara Rosen is no less awed.
"People have gone way out of their way to be so generous," this mother of two young children reflects. She is sitv ting in her parents' living room in a suburban neighborhood of Brooklyn. Propped up near us is the large stuffed Mickey Mouse her children were given when they visited Disneyworld and adorned the "real" Mickey-Mouse with the yellow ribbon symbolizing the eagerness with which people await the hostages' return.
"Several weeks ago I was invited to the opening of a new monument for the hostages in Atlantic Highlands, N.J., overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. There was also in upstate New York a weekend festival in Salamanca to which several of the families and I were invited.
"Schoolchildren have written us letters about how they're praying for us. I went over to visit a special-education class here recently -- children who have enough problems of their own -- which had painstakingly made beautiful yellow ribbons and were trying them around trees throughout the neighborhood. One little girl wrote a poem. It's little things like that which make me proud of Americans.c
But the six families argue that more must be done now to prevent this kind of ordeal from recurring. Particulary strong are voices of those with longer experience in the Foreign Service.
"Surely this country and the members of the United Nations will need to act with greater coordination to prevent this in the future," Margarite German, a soft-spoken mother of three, says as we talk in the living rooom of her suburban home near Rockville, Md.
Her husband, economist Bruce German, had been sent to Iran as budget, officer to straighten out disrupted US and Iranian business interests.
"I hope the United will decide to put automatic pressure on a country that allows an embassy to be seized, so that it would feel the pressure of having no import or export markets."
The UN is now considering a resolution to reaffirm international commitment to protect diplomats; but the idea of automatic sanctions has not been discussed.
Penne Laingen, wife of the chief US diplomat at the US embassy in Iran, charge d'affaires Bruce Laingen, is even more forceful.
"In a very basic sense, it hasn't been just those 53 Americans held hostage, but the whole free world. If the inviolability of international law and its protection of diplomats is not upheld, all Foreign Service families in this country and abroad will be in jeopardy." [The 53 include the now free Richard Queen.]
"We have to stand up tall for that principle which has been so grossly violated here."
When I arrived at Mrs. Laingen's home in Bethesda, Md., she was playing Chopin on the baby grand piano her family had acquired in Afghanistan when her husband was deputy ambassador there some years ago. The Laingens have three sons, one of whom is currently at the US Naval Academy and another is in a naval officer training program at the University of Minnesota.
Mrs. Laingen is adamant about the need for US diplomats and servicemen to be better protected abroad, and in her criticism of European nations for their reluctance to give full support to President Carter's call for sanctions against Iran when the embassy was seized.
"The symbolism was even more at issue than the sanctions themselves," she argues. "We needed all nations of the free world to stand up and say that breaking international tries like France to be independent and self-sufficient. But if we do not hang together on principles like this, we're lost.
"Also, when UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim went to Iran and was so badly treated, I would have thought he would come back and stomp his feet a bit -- to say, if you want your problems listened to, this is not the way to go about it."
State Department officials say that the US, for its part, has taken new security measures to protect its diplomats; but the extent will ultimately depend on congressional funding.
The Lauterbachs, whose son Steven was originally visa officer at the US embassy, still find it hard to understand why the embassy was kept open when hostility toward Americans was so intense. "Our feeling is that more attention should have been, and should in the future be given, to warning signals in a case like this," says Mr. Lauterbach, father of three grown children, relaxing in an armchair in his home.
"We do not find fault with our government's response once the crisis occurred. What we do find fault with is that before the seizure, the handwriting was already written on the wall. The embassy had been seized once in a practically identical situation, and after a great deal of hassling and negotiation we finally got our people out. That should have been enough warning to close the embassy down completely until the situation stabilized."
These six families are just as worried about the American sensitivity toward other countries -- a vital ingredient, they believe, for preventing hostage ordeals like their own.
"We're going to have to deal more sensitively with the evolving nations of the third world -- if for no other reason than because they have most of the oil and mineral resources for modern technology," says Bonnie Graves, a mother and grandmother whose husband, John, is a hostage.
She is sitting in the rustic living room of her modern town house in the wooded countryside of Reston, Va. An abstract sculpture from Africa stands on a table behind her chair, a reminder of the Graves' 14 years on that continent, a part of Mr. Graves' career in the Foreign Service.
"Not only should we deal with them on an honorable basis for ethical reasons. We havem to -- even out of pure self-interest. They are sensitive. They have needs. And they have discovered their power. So . . . we have to deal with them in a practical way, respecting their needs. Otherwise there's no way our diplomats can really function. They'll constantly be exposed to terrorism."
But will the hostage crisis, in fact, affect US relations with developing countries?
"My husband really thought this crisis would be big enough to make us rethink our approaches and policies," reflects Mrs. Graves, who protested publicly against the abortive attempt of President Carter to rescue the hostages by force back in April.
"In fact, there had been an opportunity earlier upon Mr. Carter's election for us to become more sensitive to popular needs in Iran and to forward the cause of human rights. But the pressures, whatever they were, were too great and business continued as usual with our unqualified support for the Shah. Even now I fear we haven't learned anything and will go on repeating the same mistakes.
"I feel like I need a good cry -- not because of the danger to John's life, for I believe he will return, but because of where we seem to be headed as a nation."
Mrs. Rosen believes the press has damaged international understanding.
"Why did our television networks night after night serve up pictures of angry anti-American demonstrations that had been purposely staged for our TV by Iranian militants? We gave that small group far more world attention than they deserved. We've allowed them to manipulate us. I don't think the media has been responsible in dealing with the crisis in an intelligent, adult manner.
"It should be analyzing the news as news,m not succumbing to hype, or playing on rumors and unsubstantiated predictions of what's going to happen.
"Also, while the press focused a great deal on the crisis, have Americans been able to learn anything about relating to that part of the world -- the people, their culture, history, and background? Granted, my husband and I have a particular interest in this, since he is a scholar of Iranian culture. But Americans tend to have gone into Iran without respecting it for what it is.
"We exported our jeans, music, and women's styles, and when the Iranians began to see their youth swept up in the Americanization, naturally they were concerned. These are totally different cultures, and we shouldn't expect that our values will be the ultimate standard for them. Will we learn any from the past year's ordeal, or just go on doing the same thing in these countries all over again?"
Whatever the final answer to that question, the hostages' families view the Middle East with remarkable compassion. "We've realized all along that they're not holding my sister Kate becausem she's Kate, but because she is a symbol of the US government,' Mary Jane Engquist observed early one morning in her National Academy of Sciences office.
"This is clearly a case in which bad feelings have been building up for a long, long time in Iran. It's one reason why we have felt the need for more human contact with Iranians. Kate has urged in her letters that we send pictures of family and other Americans to let her captives know we are human, that she has a family, and to help them relate to Americans more on that basis, as a way of helping to resolve tensions."
Families like the Lauterbachs with little previous exposure to Middle Eastern affairs sound as if they had been following events there for years.
"We've learned [that understanding these Middle East developments] is much more complicated than just a question of blaming Iran or blaming the Arabs," explains Mr. Lauterbach, who is arts director of the National Tag Company north of Dayton.
"There are many complex factors at work, many irrational ones. Learning more about these things may not change everything, but it makes it possible to understand it better, and this has helped us to live with it. It doesn't seem quite as senseless or irrational."
Those with more years in the Foreign Service found it easier to understand the meaning of those angry anti-American demonstrations appearing on their TV screens.
Her years in developing countries of Africa have taught Mrs. Graves to recognize the TV images as an expression of grievances that had accumulated for years. They do not mean, she argues, that all Iranians hate Americans as individuals.
Penne Laingen, who spent nine years traveling with her diplomat husband, agrees that Iranian resentment was brought on to a large extent by American behavior in Iran.
"There have been many Americans in their country -- for example, women who would not wear the chador [the traditional veil-like covering for women]. This obviously grated on the fundamentalist Muslims there. We were even exporting the television series 'Charlie's Angels' to Iran, with women running around with almost nothing on.
"It reminds me of when I was in Malta and the movie was shown, 'A Star is Born,' with Barbra Streisand. As an American ambassador's wife I was so embarrassed with that representation of American life. This is the kind of thing we have been exporting. Now if we want a better American image, obviously we've got to clean up our act. Don't insult them and their cultures."
But there is another side to the coin, according to Mrs. Laingen: that countries like Iran should do their part and learn tolerance for Americans and American culture.
"In fact, Islam as a religion talks about this, about brotherhood and hospitality. But I must say that as an American citizen traveling in the Middle East, Iran was the one country where I feared for my life. In Afganistan I never felt badly treated, but in Iran I seemed to be put down for being a woman. We once traveled to the holy city of Mashhad, where my husband wanted to visit a mosque. I had taken my shoes off to go in, and would gladly have put on a chador, but they handed me a filthy dirty garment and expected me to wear it.It was an insult.
"Yes, we need to clean up our act as Americans. But they will need to be more tolerant of us, too."
In early November when there were reports of new negotiations for the release of the hostages, the families were again hopeful that the ordeal would soon be over. But if there is one thing they have learned, it is enormous patience. Patience would be easier but for the behavior of some of the press. While some networks and reporters have been particularly considerate, others have not.
When a national network obtained films of hostage Barry Rosen back in February, they notified his family in New York of the showing. What they did not say was that Barry had flet quite ill at the time and was not looking well. The family got the news for themselves when they saw the pictures. It was a shock. Fortunately, Barry was on film again several months later assuring his wife and children he was feeling better and not to worry.
The families constantly get calls asking for their reactions to events they cannot comment on. The Iranian parliament's decision to set terms for the hostages' release brought Marge German 37 calls from the press on single day, many asking simply for her reaction.
A reporter asked one family a particularly insensitive question: "What are you going to do for publicity when this thing is over?"
And at various times over the past year when seemingly positive news has come out of Iran, the Lauterbachs have found their house surrounded by newsmen. Newsmen have been known to camp out in the homes of some families. Many of the families have been offered trips to Iran, Germany, or Washington if they would take camera crews of reporters along with them. One national television network began installing a telephone hot line in the Florida home of another sister of hostage Kate Koob.
Public officials have sometimes proved less than helpful. After her sister Kate was taken hostage, Mary Jane Engquist says her family tried to contact various state elected representatives in their home state, Iowa.
"It was then that I honestly began to wonder how such people get elected," Mrs. Engquist says.
Last November, her mother (Mrs. Koob) called the office of Iowa Sen. Roger Jepsen, whom she had taught in kindergarten years ago. Though she identified herself to his staff, she was unable to reach him. Only months later, as Mary Jane tells the story, the senator's mother called Mrs. Koob to see if her senator son had gotten in touch.
"She was shocked to find out that no contact had been made, and invited us out to see her and the senator," Mary Jane recalls. "But I was amazed that the senator did not seem to know what was going on with the hostage crisis. He did not know how many hostages were there, and seemed totally baffled by the whole thing. Both the senator and his wife said they did not have time to watch the news.
"I realize that these people put in long hours and are on a lot of committees , but I would have thought that he would at least have been concerned that he had a constituent who is a hostage. It makes me wonder whether we as Americans need to be warned by this ordeal. Do we as citizens need to sit back and look at what's happening to our high levels and local levels of government administration? Do we need to pay more attention to what this means for how our policies are being established with foreign countries and dictatorships?"
Nevertheless, many hostage families have been conscious of the support of their fellow citizens, including encouragement from the relatives of former prisoners of war -- not to mention their own inner faith.
"I have heard some people say we should just go in and wipe the Iranians off the face of this earth; but I have never felt that way," Marge German says. "I have always maintained that somehow God has His hand on this, and it will be resolved when it's His time to do it. If I did not believe for 12 months the biblical saying that 'All things work together for good to them that love God,' I don't think I could have gotten this far. I feel that something really good must transpire."
Some hostages have written to their families along similiar lines. Early in the crisis, Kate Koob wrote her parents telling them not to worry: An angel was in her room waiting when she got there. Kate's sister Mary Jane, who says she has written at least a letter a week to her sister, explains that she herself is not much of a formal churchgoer.
"But I've put my full trust in the Lord to ultimately take care of Kate. One of the families said once that if our prayers are not answered right away, then maybe we're saying the wrong prayers. I constantly remember that phrase, Let thym will be done. I feel that on that basis there's no point in me sitting here down in the dumps. It's going to work out."
Given the uncertainties that surround all news about a possible release, the families have generally avoided detailed planning for their return. Most are waiting to learn of the wishes of their relatives before making arrangements.
Mrs. Graves has probably gone the further -- preparing a study for her husband, installing a bed, telephone, easy chair, and good reading light -- things he likes. And anticipating that he will want to play some tennis, she has bought him a new tennis racket. When news of Iran's terms came early this month, his family, scattered from Europe to the West Coast of the US, made tentative plans to travel to Virginia. But all remains tentative.
What is true for all six families, however, is the determination that the lessons learned from this ordeal are not for gotten. Barbara Rosen recently wrote down what she feels this last year has meant:
"With their loss of freedom they have made each of us redefine what freedom means to us. Through their separation from family, friends, and country, we have become more appreciative of what we possess. Through their lack of activity, our daily activities have become more valuable to us. The daily threats to their lives have allowed us to reaffirm the priority and importance we attach to human life. And so we should thank the 53 men and women who have lost so much that we could again see things that are important to us as Americans and to our civilization."