As we sat on the floor in our underwear last Christmas Eve, Terry Waite gave us hope. He gave us hope that we would be free men again, and we love this guy.
Amid all the Byzantine double-dealings of hostage diplomacy in the Middle East, Terry Waite has been the unthinkable man: a figure of trust. With moral suasion as his only weapon—and his only portfolio that of assistant to the Archbishop of Canterbury—Waite managed to play a key role in the release in recent months of American hostages Benjamin Weir, Lawrence Jenco and David Jacobsen, who had been held captive for more than 18 months. Whether it was his good offices that brought them home or the barter of U.S. weaponry to Iran does not, in a sense, matter: In the most trying of times, he gave the hostages a comfort beyond the scope of any covert action; he risked his life for them. And now that scandal has deflated the currency of arms, he may once again represent the best hope of deliverance for the five Americans still held by Moslem militants in Lebanon: AP correspondent Terry Anderson, educators Donald Sutherland and Frank Reed, university comptroller Joseph Cicippio and poet Edward Tracy.
Since Waite, 47, set off on his mission little more than a year ago, he has seen action enough for a lifetime. He remembers, for example, the time he was pinned down in a hotel by gunfire between rival militias. Most indelibly he remembers the times he was called upon to negotiate, single-handed, with as many as a dozen heavily armed terrorists. “Those are the difficult moments,” he says. “There you are up at the front end. You’re exposed and alone, and you have to depend on your own intuition and your own resources. If anything goes wrong, there is no one there to do anything for you.” He will not soon forget one such meeting, when kidnappers got jittery and accused him of being a spy. “I was given 24 hours to leave the country,” he recalls. “I was told that if I did not do so I would be killed.”
Nicknamed the Gentle Giant (he stands 6’7″), Waite is the son of a policeman from the small village of Styal. Stricken early with wanderlust, he left home at age 16 and did a brief stint in the elite Grenadier Guards before signing up for duty in several developing African nations as a lay missionary for the Church of England. Married in 1964 and the father of four, Waite first got into the hostage negotiation business five years ago, when three missionaries were captured by radicals in Iran. After Waite met with the Ayatollah Khomeini, the Britons were quietly released, with none of the recriminations that attended the U.S. hostage drama in Tehran. Christmas 1984 found him in a Bedouin tent discussing Greek philosophy with Muammar Gaddafi—and successfully negotiating the freedom of four British citizens held in Libyan jails.
He doesn’t pretend to know where all the credit really belongs for the release of the U.S. hostages by their Lebanese kidnappers. “In any of these situations, there is no one single factor alone that achieves the release of anybody,” he says. “There are complex patterns.” How successful he will be with the last remaining U.S. hostages is obviously an open question. For now he takes hope in the fact that his contacts in the region are once again taking his calls, having been run to ground for a time by the U.S.-Iran arms scandal. When asked about that debacle, his answer is a cunning mixture of painstaking diplomacy and plain-speaking: “I’ve never been in the business of blaming anybody…. I can only add that while there are activities and actions that undoubtedly lead one to hold one’s head and cry, ‘For goodness’ sake,’ at the end of the day the politicians will have to do their thing…. We must, and will, do our thing.” That promise is no doubt making five Americans’ lives in Lebanon easier to bear.