Because he lost control of himself, Norman Mayer, the anti-nuclear protester who was killed by police at the end of his siege at the Washington Monument, was quickly labeled nutty. Actually, what he lost control of was the mental defense system each of us needs to keep out the assaults on reason that are the core of the nuclear arms race.

With no defense, Mayer saw all too clearly -- and horribly -- that plans are possibly afoot to cook humanity in the name of peace. He lost his ability to remain calm while the nuclear weapons lobby continues to gain more money and greater respect. On Dec. 8, Mayer snapped.

The unarmed loner, yielding more to momentary rashness than calculated terrorism, told a lie. He said that his truck was loaded with 1,000 pounds of dynamite and he would blow up the monument if his demands to be heard were not met. He then brokered the lie into an unjustified rupture of civil order. In the words of a police official observing Mayer's agitation in the last hours of his life, "He just went crazy."

That would end the matter tidily, except that the frantic buildup of nuclear weapons since 1945 has skewered the definition of crazy.

Who is out of touch with reality: someone who listens to politicians talk of possible nuclear war and panics, or those who hear the same talk and remain untroubled?

Who's to be viewed with more alarm: the person who reads last week's news story of the House voting 346 to 68 for a record $231 billion defense bill and commits himself to nonviolent protest, or the person who reads the story and, yawning, turns the page.

Mayer's methods were unacceptable. Yet he expressed ideas that are being heard and applauded in the most respected of forums. One of his leaflets stated, "We are a failed civilization daily on the verge of annihilation and all the world's establishments are responsible." Those words were no different than ones spoken a few days later by Alva Myrdal in her acceptance in Oslo of the Nobel Peace Prize: "There is no doubt that what the superpowers are now planning, and in which they are investing billions, is precisely the preparation for waging war . . . Our civilization is in the process not only of being militarized, but also being brutalized."

Mayer's feint was too threatening to have expected that the police would refrain from stopping the crisis with gunfire. Equally regrettable was that several peace groups would so quickly distance themselves from the slain protester and his caper. Mayer was viewed as an embarrassment to the peace movement. He was a sidewalk loon. His kookiness included protests in front of the White House, where every raindancer imaginable eventually shows up to gyrate futilely to change the political weather.

Mayer's rashness was disappointing, but for different reasons than those given by the peace groups. His protest was not sufficiently symbolic. As long as he was going to bluff his way to public attention, it is plausable he could have made another kind of announcement, that a nuke lay in the back of his truck.

"I am here today with my Peacekeeper nuclear bomb, with multiple peaceheads, to focus attention on disarmament," Mayer could have announced. As the newest member in the superpower nuclear club, Mayer could have said truthfully that he learned to assemble his homemade bomb from facts available at his local library.

Mayer's was a TNT bluff in the nuclear age. It distracted us, too, from the potential reality that when world leaders, the supposed sane ones, issue their threats -- "do as I say or I'll blow you up" -- they may not be bluffing. Their weapons are real.