We love John and Jill - at least for now: Something deep inside us hates hostages and seeks out their personal flaws, says Robert Fisk

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NOT long after John McCarthy's release from captivity, a columnist humorously suggested that the ex-hostage and his girlfriend, Jill Morrell, should marry and move into Buckingham Palace. It was a curiously revealing remark. The romance of the British Royal Family was disintegrating, but here was a young Briton, less exalted in blood but evidently courageous in the best G A Henty tradition, returning to the arms of his beloved after more than five years of torment in the basements of Lebanon.

He demonstrated the same hesitancy as the youthful Prince Charles. McCarthy's potential bride - if not so gauche as the innocent Diana of those early photographs - appeared a perfect match. On the back cover of their newly published autobiography, Some Other Rainbow, the couple can be seen walking together in almost unconscious imitation of those first official portraits of Charles and Diana. The Prince and his fiancee walked across the manicured lawn of a palace; McCarthy and Morrell wander through an unkempt copse, tramping through the undergrowth of middle-class England. No one will ever tape an indiscreet phone call from either of them; no McCarthy- Morrell relative will be discovered toe-nibbling with the wrong partner.

John and Jill for King and Queen. Not such a bad idea, even if - on the evidence of their book - the real Queen of England could not find a word of sympathy for the couple when she met Jill Morrell during the campaign for McCarthy's release. At the time, of course, Foreign Office officials were telling journalists foolish enough to listen that the British hostage was already dead. And it is Morrell's account of official British lethargy and Foreign Office deviousness that illuminates her contribution to their book. It would have been much easier for the Thatcher administration if McCarthy had been murdered in captivity; and if he was dead, then of course the Queen could not be seen to encourage hopes for a hostage who was not going to return. So Morrell got short shrift - until McCarthy reappeared on 8 August 1991. Given an almost regal welcome at RAF Lyneham, he subsequently received royal recognition of his continued existence with an invitation to meet the Queen.

But beware. If it is torturous to be a hostage, it is mightily dangerous to be released. Back in Beirut, in the frightening days of 1985 and 1986, we quickly realised that hostages underwent two traumas. The first was their abduction. The second was the kidnapping of their private lives.

Only days after the kidnapping of one Westerner, it was being put about in Beirut that the man had seduced a series of young men. It was a lie, but the story, along with many others, persisted. Didn't Brian Keenan drink too much? The implication of the rumours was obvious: if the characters of some hostages were so flawed, then maybe - in some undefined way - they deserved to be kidnapped.

Upon their release, the hostages have been held up to detailed moral scrutiny. Morrell records the cruelty of a journalist who, only days after McCarthy's release, asked her if she was pregnant by one of his friends. In his forthcoming book Taken on Trust, Terry Waite will have to answer a lot of questions about his relations with Colonel Oliver North and the shipment of arms to Iran. But his role - like his kidnapping - was a political one that still requires explanation. Not so, one would have thought, Brian Keenan, who was McCarthy's closest friend in captivity. In the new genre of hostage literature, Keenan's An Evil Cradling is by far the best.

But this has not spared him pain. In his recent book Hostage, for example, the British journalist Con Coughlin tells his readers of Keenan's frequent 'inebriation' in Beirut, adding that after his release, Keenan 'turned his back on his two sisters (who had campaigned for his release), and withdrew to the wilds of the west of Ireland to resume his old drinking habits'. There is no mention of the loss Keenan suffered after his release, when a woman with whom he had become close friends died in a car accident in Northern Ireland.

Take, too, the case of the American journalist Terry Anderson, the longest held of all the hostages, whose book will appear in autumn. Anderson was kidnapped at a dramatic point in his private life. His marriage had broken down and his wife had returned to her native Japan with their child. Anderson had fallen in love with a Lebanese woman who was pregnant with his child and whom he was to marry (their wedding is to be held in five weeks).

Yet this is how Coughlin refers to him: 'It was beyond the comprehension of a Shia Muslim (kidnapper) that someone like Anderson could abandon his wife and child in the States in order to work in Lebanon, and set himself up with a Lebanese mistress.' Quite apart from the geographical inaccuracy, what is one to make of this? Coughlin knew Anderson and must have known that these remarks were a travesty of reality. It should also be said that Coughlin is himself a good man - he is an old friend of mine - but how can one account for this element of spitefulness?

The truth, I suspect, is that the hostage has become a symbol of our hopes and our despair. We admire his endurance. We rejoice at his release. But something in us also despises his courage. This is not an age of supermen; too many of our heroes have turned out to be made of paper. That fairy-tale marriage turned to dust. If our lives can be failures, why should we not seek out flaws in those who have gone through the hoop of fire?

It is curious, in this context, to compare our reaction to that of the Muslim Lebanese who have also - in infinitely greater numbers - endured the brutality of kidnapping. In Israel's notorious Khiam jail in southern Lebanon, there is, among the prisoners, a group of Shia Muslims held hostage for the good behaviour of relatives and for future exchange with Israel's missing airman Ron Arad. Yet, when occasional batches of Khiam's prisoners are released, no attempt is made to turn them into heroes. In Lebanon, it is the dead who are revered, not just the guerrillas killed fighting the Israelis but civilians blown apart by shellfire or murdered in secret by Muslims or Christians. Martyrdom is more important than survival.

Not so with us. We remember Waite and McCarthy and Keenan. But how many of us can recall the names of the three other Britons kidnapped and imprisoned in Lebanon, then brutally murdered in 1986? They were killed after Mrs Thatcher allowed US planes to bomb Libya from British bases. Two of them were dedicated teachers, the third a freelance writer: Philip Padfield, Leigh Douglas and Alec Collett. McCarthy, Waite and Keenan were honoured by the Queen. Padfield, Douglas and Collett were - unforgivably - ignored.

Yes, we prefer survivors. And they had better live up to their lionisation. Woe betide Morrell and McCarthy if they ever stray from the path of true love, for our chroniclers will be there to note the fact; or at least to make sure that they don't get away with it. The irony is that to be happy in their private lives, McCarthy and his fellow hostages must wish to be ignored - as much as their plight was disregarded during their years of anguish.

(Photograph omitted)