As a public virtue, the art of nonviolent confrontation seems to be passing from fashion. At least that's what we are told. The era of peace marches and civil rights protests has passed into history, it is said, with the scruffy demonstrators of the '60s softened into the "realistic" citizens of the '80s. As likely as not, now they work inside the once-loathed system. Idealists have become pragmatists.

Perhaps that is true in some unmeasurable, generalized kind of way. But one place where confrontation hasn't mellowed is the Pentagon.

For the past few years, thousands of citizens in dozens of demonstrations have come to rallies at the doors of Caesar's greatest fortress. They are patriots who believe, argue and fear that America's military policies are recklessly increasing the chances for nuclear war, and that there is a better way to live -- and die -- than by nuclear weapons. They agree with what a clergyman from one of the peace churches has been saying: "If nuclear holocaust ever destroys this beautiful world, it will only be because millions of people first condoned preparations for it."

At the most recent demonstrations -- for three days between Christmas and New Year's -- the daily group of 300 was a mix of students, professional people, clergy, homemakers, children, veterans and others who came to express gracious contempt for American militarism. Because the peace demonstrations have been regularized -- thanks to the organizing skills of the Atlantic Life Community which notifies peace groups around the country when the barricades seem to be thinning -- the drama of the confrontations has tended not to be noticed.

This may be about to change. As though getting a lockstep with those who are escalating the weapons budget to record highs, the courts are escalating their reactions to civil disobedience. The other day in a U.S. District Court, in Alexandria, a priest was given 30 days -- the maximum -- for blocking an entrance to the Pentagon. Another judge sentenced a group of women to 10 days in jail. Gerald Berigan, the brother of Daniel and Philip, spilled some blood and ashes on a Pentagon wall. For that, he was slapped with a bond of $1,000, considered high for so minor an offense.

As excessively harsh as this treatment was, the court's mood in mid-November, when some 124 women were arrested for petty offenses involving nonviolent civil disobedience, was even more foul. Thirty-four women, after pleading guilty or nolo contendere, were shackled in leg irons, waist irons and steel handcuffs and bused off into the night for a seven-hour trip to the Federal Women's Penitentiary in Alderson, W. Va. The sentences ranged from 10 to 30 days.

Shackling nonviolent women into leg irons and waist irons and shipping them off to a rural prison recalls the era of New England witch-burning. It is penology we associate with countries like Russia or Paraguay. In those places of fear, judges need not answer to the public for their philosophies of sentencing. But this frightening policy functions well in America, or at least in the magistrate's court nearest the Pentagon. When I asked one of the judges about her harsh sentencing of the women peace demonstrators, she said, "It wouldn't be proper to talk about it."

As propriety continues to be well-served by the forces of hard-line justice, the message is Day-Glo clear. From now on, the correct attitude toward the Pentagon must be one of unquestioning civil obedience. From most people most of the time, that's fine. Little dissent is heard. In fact, many would thank judges for throwing the book at all those pests who disturb the Pentagon's peace.

The effect of this passivity is that the excesses of the military are seldom linked in a cause-and-effect way with the deteriorations that afflict America. "Please watch your favorite economists," counsels David McReynolds in War Resisters League News, "I can guarantee there is one cause of inflation they will not mention: military spending. They may talk about the danger of government funding of social programs, or the inflationary effect of credit, or of the OPEC price increases. Yet the real fact is that military spending is the basic cause of inflation."

McReynolds, an unrepentant and longtime military critic who has often been arrested for civil disobedience, had better stay away from the Pentagon. The way that first and second offenders are being sentenced these days, he might get anywhere from 30 days to 30 years. Plus leg irons.