HE LEFT New York at 10:30 at night. He had some rugs in the car and was heading to Washington to do some business. Several times he thought about stopping at a rest area -- a cup of coffee, something to eat. He kept going through. He was afraid to stop. He is an Iranian.

This is not what he tells people anymore. He tells them now that he is an Israeli. A year ago, he left Iran for America. He had been educated here -- a Ph.D in something or other. He came back because the ayatollah came to power. It was a bad time for him to be in Iran: He is an Iranian Jew.

Now it is a bad time for him here. A friend who is in the rug business got a threatening phone call. People with dark complexions are stopped on the street and asked if they are Iranian. The Iranian in the car heading to Washington has heard all these stories. On the radio he hears more stories, and when he pulls up to places like the Joyce Kilmer Rest Stop on the Jersey Turnpike he looks inside to see if the faces look friendly or hostile. To him, they all look hostile. He drives on.

In a sense, he is looking at us the way we are looking at him. We are not differentiating, distinguishing between the Iranians in Iran and the ones over here, between the 80,000 Iranians here who are not students and the 50,000 who are -- between those who oppose the ayatollah and those who do not and even between those who support the new regime but not its seizure of our embassy.

Back when the Iranian students first seized the embassy and when the ones here were marching in the streets, it seemed to make some sense to call in the students and check their papers. There was something nice and neat about it, something right out of an old movie -- "round up the usual suspects." It seemed the right thing to do. After all, these were the people marching through the streets, shouting obnoxious things at us, denouncing our country, yelling hosannas to the man who was holding our countrymen hostage. Round them up. Good riddance to bad rubbish.

But it turns out that it is not that simple. Only several thousand students marched; there are 50,000 here. Some of them left Iran because they had to -- because it got rough for Christians and Jews and Bahais, as it always does for minorities when fanatics seize power. Some of the students left for political reasons and some just because they were nervous about events. A lot of them feel about Khomeini the way you and I do. Some of them, you can guess, feel nothing at all. Maybe they are confused, unsure. They are being rounded up anyway.

You can understand why the administration has ordered this action. It is under pressure. This is not an administration that had yet proved it is tough. It has no notches on its gun, no scalps on its belt. Even now, it has taken what you would have to call moderate action. The rhetoric is less than ringing, the words are reasonable, the trumpet is muted. We have not been asked to charge up a hill.

Still, something awful is happening. Not all illegal students are being rounded up. Not Nigerian students. Not israeli students. Not the French and not the British and not the Africans. It is only the Iranians. They have been singled out because they have marched, because they have been found politically obnoxious, not because they pose a security problem -- not because Americans in Iran would suffer if a mob were turned on Iranian students. A simple ban on demonstrations would take care of that.

The issue, as always, comes down to people. It is one thing to make grand pronouncements -- to say something in a sort of highfaluting-columnist way about the obligation of government to protect unpopular minorities, not take the lead in the finger-pointing or even to say that to take political reprisals against any group is wrong. It is quite another thing, though, just to imagine yourself at the wheel of a car driving from New York to Washington, sleepy at the wheel, wanting a cup of coffee, yet too terrified to stop.

That is what happened to one man. He got to Washington, unloaded his rugs and told his friends of his fears. He is puzzled and scared. In Iran, he was hated as a Jew and in America he is hated as an Iranian. It wasn't supposed to happen that way. Here we're supposed to judge people as individuals.

It's called The American Way.