EVERY ONCE IN A WHILE, something happens in Washington that justifies its reputation as a place where logic has been banned, where rationality has no place, where words lose their meaning and where programs persist because no one can figure out how to end them. It is something of a miracle that nearly all of this applies to the Distric of Colombia's Fire Department's affirmative action program.

Now it may not matter to you whether the man who comes to put out a fire in your house is black or white or, if you will, Spanish-surnamed. You may not even care if the person holding the net into which you are to jump is a man or a woman or something since moderation is a virtue in between. But it clearly matters to some people.

This is understandable. For a long time the city's fire department had been a redoubt of white racism. Long after other segregated institutions fell victim to the 20th Century, logic or creeping democracy, the fire department held out. It had its traditions.

As a result, it is still only 36 percent black -- this in a city that is 30 percent white. On the face of it, this is a pretty lousy record, but it is nothing compared to what used to be the case. After all, it is not so long ago that the fire department had two sets of oxygen masks -- one for whites and one for blacks. But the worst that can be said for it now is that the effects of the old racism remain -- among them a disproportionate number of whites and, when it comes to racial matters, a bad public image.

It is because of this sorry record that the District's Office of Human Rights recently ordered the fire department to fill 60 of 70 vacant positions with members of minority groups. The office of human rights took this action after the fire department, hiring strictly by merit, filled 23 vacancies. It selected 21 whites, two blacks and no women. The department chose from the top scorers on the 1980 Entry Level Fire Fighters Examinations.

It just could be that when it comes to putting out fires, getting kittens out of trees and charming little boys out of their socks, the examination measures none of these things and is not worth the paper it's printed on. It could be also that the examination is in some way culturally or racially biased. But the human rights office does not prove that. It says, instead, that the fire department discriminated because whites did better than blacks. The proof, in other words, is in the pudding.

But in Washington, blacks are not only numerically far and away the majority, they also have the political franchise. City Hall belongs -- if it can be said to belong to a race at all -- to blacks. The mayor is black and so is a majority of the City Council and so, for that matter, is the fire chief. You could not find half a dozen sane people who would believe that under these conditions the fire department is really discriminating against blacks.

So what then is the human rights office doing? It is trying to redress past discrimination. But it is late in applying the remedy and it is applying it not on behalf of the people who once suffered, but for those who have not. No one has gone to the old 1955 list and asked these people to take the test again. The ones now benefiting are people who were never discriminated against in seeking fire department jobs in the first place. And the people who have to step aside are not the ones who benefited from the old department's discrimination. Two unfairs do not make a fair.

But worse than that, the city's use of racial quotas forces everyone -- the city government, the unions and the people -- to continue to see people not as individuals with individual merits, but as members of a particular race. What is of primary importance is race; what matters less is merit. This might be justifiable when it is clear the discrimination is persisting and there is no other way to remedy it. But in the District, that is no longer the case.

No one would argue with the idea of equality and no one would deny that it would be fair and good to have more blacks on the fire department. But someone (me, for instance) would argue that it's wrong for blacks to be appointed because they are, among other things, blacks. To choose someone on the basis of race means that someone else is rejected on the same basis -- race. Some people call this affirmative action. But to those who get passed over, it looks awfully much like racial discrimination.