As the days of his unexplained absence lengthened into weeks, the television footage of Terry Waite's last public appearance on Jan. 20 was put on constant replay. Every night we saw Waite striding purposefully along a dusty Beirut street, towering over his Druze bodyguards. The image underscored Waite's special role in the Middle East hostage drama: He alone was willing to brave the anarchy of West Beirut and engage in face-to-face negotiations with the pro-Iranian extremists holding 23 foreigners.

By Feb. 10, however, it was all but certain that Waite, the patron saint of hostages, had himself been seized as a human bargaining chip. "It is pretty obvious that he's been kidnapped," said a British diplomat.

Verifiable information was scarce, but rumors proliferated. First the Anglican envoy was said to be "under arrest." Later an underground group accused him of wearing a wire to his meeting with the hostage-takers so that the CIA could pinpoint their location. A story that he had been shot while trying to escape was immediately refuted by eyewitnesses who claimed to have seen him alive and well. Hopes raised by promises of his imminent release were then dashed when the deadlines passed without news. All anyone could say for sure was that he was incommunicado, having failed even to pass on his customary reassuring word to his wife and four children in England.

Some observers considered Waite foolhardy to have returned to Lebanon following revelations that the U.S. had secretly offered arms for American hostages even as he was negotiating their release. The 47-year-old churchman had felt personally betrayed by those actions and was infuriated by any hint that he'd been a knowing decoy in the scheme: "All I can say to people who write such speculative comments is: Realize that sort of comment will cost me my life."

Concern for his damaged credibility likely influenced Waite's decision to return to Beirut on Christmas Eve and again on Jan. 12. "He was desperately trying to show he's independent and he really cares," said a U.S. State Department official. "He felt discredited, so he went in there, and he stayed too long."

Taking hostages, a crime as old as money and power, has often paid off

The apparent abduction of Terry Waite is a crime of dishonorable yet ancient origins. For centuries before hostage taking became a political weapon for extremists, kidnappers were demanding a king's ransom in exchange for a prisoner's life. The most important thing to note about hostage taking, comments Caroline Moorehead, author of the historical survey Hostage to Fortune, is that "it works." Not always, perhaps, but every effort to craft a sensible government response to this crime runs afoul of a crucial reality: Even dressed up as a modern media event, hostage taking turns on the simplest truth—a life hangs in the balance.

Julius Caesar was so arrogant that when pirates waylaid him in the Aegean Sea around 75 B.C., he pushed them to demand even higher ransom. While envoys rushed to collect the money, the future ruler was imprisoned in a hut and left to while away the time wrestling with his captors, who laughed at his threats to come back and kill them. As soon as the ransom was paid, the young Caesar borrowed 500 Roman soldiers, and captured and duly crucified 30 pirate leaders.

Colonel José Moscardó was holding the garrison at Alcázar when he learned that his son Luis, 16, had been taken hostage by Generalissimo Franco's enemies in the Spanish Civil War. If the colonel did not surrender, warned a telephone caller, his son would be killed. The enemy officer put Luis on the phone: "Commend your soul to God, cry 'Viva Espana,' and die like a patriot, Luis," Moscardó told the boy. "I send you a big kiss, Papa," said Luis. "A big kiss for you, my son," replied the colonel. Luis was shot one month later, in August 1936.

Benjamin Disraeli was British Prime Minister in 1877, when a little-known group of Sicilian bandits called "the Mafia" kidnapped John Forrester Rose, scion of a banking family. Disraeli, urged to mount an invasion of the island, hesitated. Mrs. Rose was unable to raise the $30,000 ransom, and small body parts began to arrive by post. At length, when a bit of nose arrived, $16,000 was hastily raised and dispatched to the bandits. Rose was returned to his family, and the tricky hoods survived to darken another day.

Aldo Moro, a respected politician widely regarded as a future President of Italy, was seized in March 1978, after Red Brigade terrorists staged a shootout with his four bodyguards. Despite Moro's written pleas—and those of his family—the Italian government refused all concessions. After 54 days Moro's corpse was found stuffed in a car trunk on a Rome street.

Richard the Lionhearted was returning from an unsuccessful Crusade in the Middle East when he was taken hostage near Vienna in 1192. His archenemy Leopold of Austria had seen through the monarch's disguise and surprised him "roasting capons on a spit." King Richard had to pledge 150,000 marks and eternal fealty to the Holy Roman Empire for his freedom.

Charles Burke Elbrick was U.S. Ambassador to Brazil in 1969 when his Cadillac was hijacked in Rio de Janeiro by so-called MR-8 revolutionaries. They hoped to force the release of jailed comrades and publicize their cause. Under pressure from Washington, the Brazilian junta flew a group of prisoners (below) to freedom in Mexico. Elbrick shook hands with his captors and hailed a cab home. The success of this and a string of subsequent kidnappings in Brazil almost certainly encouraged terrorists in other lands.