Is what happened to 89-year-old Pierre See just another example of how we treat older people, or is it symptomatic of the way everybody treats everybody?

The aged Mr. See was seated in a New York subway car the other day reading his newspaper as best he could with his palsied hands. The gentle tremble bothered the man next to him who, according to the news accounts, told him to cut out that shaking. The old man didn't understand, either because he's a Frenchman whose native tongue isn't English or because nobody can hear anybody in a New York subway. The continued trembling so vexed his seatmate that the young and much larger man swung on Mr. See, punched him out and left him bleeding and nearly unconscious.

Doing away with the aged and infirm has been a practice in different places and epochs, where there was not the surplus food to sustain members of the community too old or too incapacitated to work.

Leaving a person in the forest with a water gourd and nothing else to wait for death may seem cruel, but the way it is usually done does have the dignity to nature about it. The old are left to die in the same rhythm as the planet tilts; the equinox comes and autumn falls.

Perhaps beating old men to death in alleys is the urban equivalent. According to the newspapers, retired people are only good for adding to inflation, unbalancing the budget and dragging down the working and producing portion of the population. Odd, isn't it? We are the richest nation in the world, but the message beeped out from the organs of our society concerned with making wealth -- places like The Wall Street Journal or Forbes -- is that we don't have surplus enough to take care of our ancients, who, we are told in irked tones, aren't dying nearly as fast and therefore as satisfactorily as they did. Let's face it, we can either have a 2 1/2-war Navy or grandpa.

Not that money would necessarily have saved Mr. See. Of late, there have been more stories than ever about older people being brutalized, usually by their children or grandchildren.

However, you should always keep your guard up when announcements of newly discovered social problems are made. Has physical and emotional abuse of older people by their closest relatives really increased or are these the findings of unemployment social workers looking for a job?

Even letting that question go unanswered, it is plain to see that our society offers neither solace nor protection for many older people. An elderly man in Maryland was recently tried for and acquitted of killing a teen-ager. The facts of the case are hard to reliably reconstruct from newspaper accounts, but it appears the man had been endlessly teased and tormented by prankish neighborhood boys. One winter day the kids were throwing snowballs at him, and matters got out of hand. Next thing, one of the boys was dead of a shotgun wound.

The community has no power to discipline such youthful misbehavior. That is the parents' job, but the kids themselves are as rootless in their own soil as older poeple. The adults in the family must work. Homemaking had been degraded and doesn't pay enough, so Mom and Pop push more of the chores of child-raising onto the school, which is no longer a neighborhood institution and is being squished to bread crumbs by the pressure of new responsibilities it can't live up to.

The only people who have a place in this world are those who have a job. The able-bodied young and the able-bodied old are excluded from the work place and hence from social status and social place. As a substitute they are offered the ministrations of impossibly awkward institutions. Day care for the young, day care for the old, everybody banging together like billiard balls after a hard break. But in Washington these are not the major problems of the day. Ultimately we may free the hostages in Iran, but if children lock their parents up in their rooms, the old people should send away for a pamphlet. The Department of Agriculture has an answer for everything.