The strange, compelling case of the suicide-prevention fences on the Duke Ellington Memorial Bridge is approaching its denouement. There will be a court-ordered public hearing on Friday, after which Mayor Marion Barry will have a few weeks to ponder his answer to the raw question: Do the fences, in place now for a year and a half, deserve to stay or should they be removed?

In the past this debate has been characterized as one between the esthetes and the humanitarians. If one was against the railings, which almost everyone agrees do significant visual damage to a noble structure, one was presumed to be practically a ghoul -- to be, almost, for suicide. And vice versa. "Life is more important than esthetics," said the mayor in 1984.

But voluminous evidence suggests that the question is by no means so simple. An enlightened, even-tempered response demands an assessment of the extent of a government's responsibility to protect individual citizens from acts of self-destruction, and a decision about how best to accomplish such a goal. It involves a patient following of democratic procedures and a careful weighing of statistical evidence. And it raises the issue of the degree to which appearances -- political as well as architectural -- contradict reality.

The Ellington Bridge traverses Rock Creek Park along Calvert Street NW, connecting the high ridges of Adams-Morgan in the east to those of Woodley Park in the west. Designed by Paul Cret, the French-born Philadelphia architect who gave Washington a number of its more distinguished buildings (the Organization of American States, the Federal Reserve Board, the Folger Shakespeare Library) as well as another fine bridge (carrying Connecticut Avenue over Klingle Valley), it was completed in 1935.

There is no question about its beauty -- it's a powerful, elegant structure that greatly dignifies its splendid surroundings. It was called simply the Calvert Street Bridge until 1974, when it was aptly renamed for Edward Kennedy Ellington, the late, great duke of jazz and clearly one of D.C.'s more powerfully creative and fundamentally elegant native sons. Together with its neighbor, the Taft Bridge continuing Connecticut Avenue over Rock Creek, it makes a significant statement about civility, about the possibility of harmony between nature and man in the middle of the city.

There is, also, no question about its height -- a leap from the bridge onto a roadbed 125 feet below will bring a tragic, sudden and certain end to a human life. In the fall of 1984 the District's Department of Public Works, concerned that the bridge was becoming a grisly "suicide landmark" and spurred by the availability of 80 percent federal funding, sought a ruling from the District's historic preservation officer concerning the installation of a $160,000 "suicide-preventive safety rail." The ruling -- that despite an undeniably "adverse impact" on the structure "there is at present no prudent and feasible alternative" to the railing's erection "in this location for the public benefit" -- paved the way for the commencement of its construction the following summer.

Construction, however, was halted for several months when citizens in nearby communities -- people who use the bridge daily to walk to and from the Woodley Park/Zoo Metro station, or stores, or friends' houses and apartments -- protested vehemently. During this hiatus three persons jumped to their deaths from the Ellington Bridge, and these tragedies prompted the mayor to order completion of the fences, which was accomplished by mid-January 1986. Barry said then that the fences would be installed on a trial basis, and the time has certainly arrived for reevaluation.

This was in fact ordered last spring by a Superior Court judge who, in response to a suit brought by citizens, ruled that the District government had acted illegally by failing to seek comments from affected Advisory Neighborhood Commissions and to submit its plans to the city's Historic Preservation Review Board. These bodies were duly notified and have acted -- the review board has rejected the fences unanimously and the ANCs have voted overwhelmingly against them. Friday's hearing is the final step in the process established by the court. After it, the mayor must decide whether the barriers are "necessary in the public interest."

We have lived with these "suicide-preventive" fences plenty long enough to see that the esthetic results live up to expectations -- they are awful, from one end of the Ellington span to the other. Bad when seen from a distance -- the pickets seem like hopeless little afterthoughts atop those big, graceful arches -- the fences are worse, much worse, when experienced close up. Driving and, especially, walking the bridge now is like going through a cagelike tunnel -- gone is the exhilarating sense of being a privileged onlooker to a forest within a city.

This emotional, healthy response to a rare visual spectacle, shared by many thousands of individuals every year, can be (and has been) characterized as inconsequential, private and even selfish in view of the stakes involved -- saving human lives. But such a characterization, however well intended, is small-minded and, from the point of view of public policy, fundamentally wrong.

Esthetics, as here considered, is not a matter of personal taste, not a question of hanging this or that picture on the living room wall. It is, rather, an issue of broad public import -- the living room we're talking about here is a public open space of the kind that can elevate the spirit, make people feel better, make them momentarily aware of the joys of living in a great city or simply of being alive. Such visual images are not "merely" visual, of course; they are symbols, the keys that unlock positive inner experiences, that contribute in a very real if scientifically immeasurable way to a society's mental health.

The other side of this symbolic coin -- what messages these pathetic fences send out to troubled souls actively contemplating suicide -- was eloquently addressed by citizens testifying before the preservation review board. Emily Gumpert: "A barrier of this type is a statement of failure, not of hope; of despair, not encouragement; and for all we know, the barriers may be a morbid advertisement to leaping suicides." Peggy Robin: "This fence tells people, 'We don't care what your problems are, why you may want to end it all -- just don't do it here. Take it someplace else, preferably out of the District, and better still, out of sight ...' "

A democratic government, acting wisely, subtracts so significantly from the good of the many only for momentous cause, and there indeed is the rub in this particular case -- the negative alterations to the Ellington Bridge demonstrably have not produced the hoped-for positive results. The bitter numbers bear out what common sense and professional opinion foretold. There has been a reduction of suicidal leaps from the Ellington Bridge -- two in 1986 (one of which occurred before the fences were completed), compared with six the previous year and 13, all told, in the five-year period from 1981 through 1985 -- but there has been an alarming increase in suicides from other District bridges and in leaping suicides generally.

According to statistics from the office of the D.C. medical examiner, in 1986 there were three suicides from the Taft Bridge (compared with four in the previous five years), eight from other bridges (compared with 10 in the previous five years), and 14 from other high places (compared with 37 in the previous five years). The record number of leaping suicides in a single year is difficult to account for, although publicity surrounding the Ellington Bridge controversy probably played a role. But the pattern the numbers tell is clear and was predicted: People are having no trouble finding places from which to jump to their deaths. If deterred at the Ellington, they go elsewhere.

These facts add a chilling dimension to the District government's behavior. There seems to have been a collective raising of the ramparts; the Department of Public Works (arguably the wrong department to be handling a major issue of public health) proceeds truculently to push not only for the retention of the Ellington fences but also for the right to construct such barriers elsewhere, as part of an ongoing (and much needed) bridge maintenance program.

Next on the schedule is the Taft Bridge, so that if the District government has its way we'll have in one of the city's most beautiful spots two magnificent bridges whose chief symbolic import will be death-defying instead of life-affirming. And after the Taft, according to this logic, will come one by one each of the city's high bridges, so that by the year 2000 barricaded bridges will be one of this city's principal identifying marks to the world.

To say that this would represent a policy failure of stupefying magnitude is to minimize the effects -- it would signal terrible irresponsibility, tunnel vision to the nth degree. Even if, by carrying out so draconian a policy, we were able to prevent all bridge suicides (a questionable assumption), we would be dealing with but a fraction of the problem -- self-inflicted deaths at bridges accounted for less than 10 percent of all suicides in the District from 1981 through 1986.

It should be apparent by now that the conflict over the Ellington Bridge is not just a neighborhood tussle but one with citywide, regionwide and nationwide implications. Its crux is the policy itself, with its transparent pretense of seriously addressing the difficult, troubling problem of suicides by erecting "passive site-specific barriers," as the fences are known to psychologists specializing in suicide prevention.

A real policy, many professionals agree, would focus instead upon active, person-to-person approaches -- programs in which the District government is notoriously weak. If the mayor perceives himself to be in a trying political bind -- and there is a very real danger of suicides at the Ellington Bridge after the barriers are removed -- he could wisely couple a courageous decision to take them away by putting something in their place: a revamped suicide prevention policy for the city as a whole and, for the Ellington Bridge, a 24-hour suicide hot line manned by trained personnel and a program of voluntary neighborhood suicide watches.

In this way the overall incidence of suicides might actually be reduced, and symbolism could be linked to reality. Bridges, at minimum, are functional -- they carry traffic from one side to another -- but they can be engineering feats, they can be beautiful, and they can symbolize human as well as physical connections. A bridge can be like a handshake over an impossible distance.