At first glance, you might think that the Domestic Violence Prevention and Services Act deals with terrorism. It does, but it's a peculiar sort of terrorism much more widespread than international kidnappings, bombings, and assassinations. It's the terrorism between husband and wife - a terrorism that often results in "battered wives."

Can this government do much about this? Should it?

A relatively obscure bill - already passed by the Senate (S 2759) - poses an issue that hangs permanently over Washington. What are the limits of government? Just how far should government extend itself as an active agent of social change? No one has very good answers.

It is a struggle of mind against heart. Confronted with stark evidence of brutality and suffering, only a thoroughly hardened soul can yawn with indifference. But, examining the realistic prospects of promoting change, only a mindless optimist can ignore the long odds against success.

Decades of increased social spending has indicated that the government does some things better than others. When the problem is sheer lack of money, the government does best. Whatever its faults, social security has accomplished a radical reduction in poverty - and an increase in independence - for the elderly. Providing services, the government's performance is more mixed; often, the good comes only with a hefty dose of waste and bureaucracy.

But the government fares worst when it attempts to alter personality, social background or family condition. Even the most sympathetic counselor cannot easily change psychological or cultural forces years, perhaps decades, in the building. We have poured billions into education for the poor with meager results, largely because the home is such a critical factor in learning.

But increasingly, government is called upon to perform roles that naturally ought to fall to family and friends. Read some of the testimony on "domestic violence," and the picture emerges with distressing clarity. Here is Georgene Noffsinger, a former "battered wife";

"At a meeting of a local volunteer group, which consisted of women helping women, I met a young woman carrying an infant in her arms. She was unbelievably young and innocent looking. She looked like an ad for Wisconsin dairy products, with blond braids twisted around her head . . . Her husband was in a dead-end job and had been abusing her regularly for the past two years, even during her last pregnancy. She finally confided in a limited a way in her parents. Her father, an attorney who lived nearby, warned not to leave hom or she would lose everything. Her mother more or less said, 'You have made your bed, now lie in it . . .'"

A marriage that deteriotates into violence reflects frustration and anger from sources as varied as th human condition: poverty, work, children, shattered dreams and stress of all sorts. According to one study in Michigan, about two-thirds of all assaults involved heavy drinking.

In many low-income neighborhoods, more than half of all police calls involve family fights, but the problems exist at higher income levels, too. A recent study sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMD) indicated that college-educated families experienced as much violence as the non-college educated. Noffsinger recounted the story of a diplomat's wife whose husband "would come home after a frustrating week at the office, have two martinis, and chastise her . . . for her sins with several hard slaps and a few good punches."

To see the problem in all its gruesomeness, though, is not to believe that the federal government is equipped to cope with it. More than likely, its response would be to create a new "domestic violence" bureaucracy which, almost inevitably, would discover a bigger problem needing more money.

Take the Senate bill. It would establish a new Center for Domestic Violence, which would report to Congress each year. About 85 per cent of the $30 million authorized annually would go to the states, but of that, about 15 per cent would be allotted for administrative expenses and another 10 per cent to maintain state Citizen Panels on Domestic Violence.

As for the remainder, the most popular suggestion is that funds be used to support more "shelters" for battered wives seeking a safe refuge from violence. But even the limited experience here suggests that the "shelters" constitute no more than a Band-aid and that extensive counseling services - plus, perhaps, financial assistance - might be necessary to make a dramatic improvement in the plight of battered wives.

Except for the alleviation of suffering - and who can oppose that? - no one has really articulated a compelling rationale for why the federal government should shoulder these jobs. With children and the aged, assistance can be justified on the assumption that they are, more or less, helpless and dependent. But when does the federal government step back and say that adults must solve their personal problems themselves?

Politics, not philosophy, provides the answer, and the emergency of "domestic violence" is as much a political phenomenon as anything else. As women's role in society has changed, they no longer passively accept endless abuse. And, as women's groups have acquired more political power, they have naturally demanded more help in solving their problems.

One suspects that "domestic violence" is the latest example of an invisible problem becoming visible. Certainly, little evidence exists to prove "growing 'epidemic,'" as the Senate committee asserts. The NIMH study found that one in six couples experiences a "violent episode" annually, but that included slapping, and only 5 per cent were severely beaten. More important, women can easily has risen, as has female participation in the labor force. This lessens a wife's economic dependence on her husband and her entrapment.

Indeed, a plausible case could be made that the situation may be improving. But the real pressure for social legislation stems less from the existence of a problem than from the consciousness that it exists. And, everywhere, our consciousness is rising.