They called them "the flying nuns"--sort of a joke. They were the Argentine nuns who protested the mass killings. One day the security men grabbed them, bundled them into a car, took them up in a helicopter and reportedly threw them out over a bay. There is a poem to their martyrdom now. There is also that joke.

You may not know this story. It was in the newspapers and more recently an eyewitness to the abduction recounted it for National Public Radio, but when it happened there was no major outcry. The pope in Rome did not yell and scream and the Brits did not break off diplomatic relations and as for we Americans, we tried under Jimmy Carter to protest, but it was not enough. People like Ronald Reagan said it was none of our business anyway.

This is the kind of crazy world we live in. Regimes like the military one in Argentina can literally throw nuns out of helicopters and the world looks the other way. It can take people away in the night never to be seen again, and no one much cares. It can put Jacobo Timerman in jail for the ideas in his head and torture him--put electrical devices to his genitals--and still the world turns in its sleep and yawns.

But let that same regime occupy a cold and forbidding island, let it send its troops into the Falklands, then the British and everyone else discern great matters of principle. Margaret Thatcher knows no higher cause than to win the Falklands by force of arms so that someday, and someday quite soon, they can be returned to Argentina.

You can appreciate why the Argie generals must be confused. For years, they congested the rivers of their country with bodies and aside from the Carter administration, the world said nothing. The previous pope, for instance, did not once walk out onto his balcony and tell the assembled thousands of what was happening in Argentina. He did not once mention Timerman or the nuns or someone named Angel Mario Garmendia, professor of chemistry, married with two children, who "disappeared" in 1977. How can the world care so much about some islands and next to nothing about Angel Mario Garmendia?

Some day people are going to look back on our era and wonder what kind of people we were. We would fight over little islands, but not for human rights. We would draw all kinds of arbitrary lines based on nationality, but the concept of the brotherhood of man, the essence of Western religions, meant nothing. Thus, what the Argentines do to their own people is their own business, but let them seize an island . . . Why, that is everyone's business--surely a matter for war.

I understand the concept of sovereignty. Honest I do. I know about nations and nationality and the importance of it all. But surely, Britain and the West will look silly to history, not to mention the likes of Timerman, when they condoned so much and then later took umbrage at so little. Thatcher talks now of the principle of the thing, of punishing Argentina for resolving a dispute by the use of force. She has a point, but the British were silent--and selling the Argentines guns--when nuns were being thrown out of helicopters.

It is the same with President Reagan. He can hardly chastise the Argies now when he made something of a cottage industry of attacking President Carter's human rights policy. In a late 1978 radio commentary, for instance, he said, "There is an old Indian proverb: Before I criticize a man, may I walk a mile in his moccasins. Patricia Derian and her minions at Mr. Carter's human rights office apparently haven't heard of it. If they had, they might not be making such a mess of our relations with the planet's seventh largest country, Argentina, a nation with which we should be close friends." Why didn't he think of walking in Timerman's moccasins?

At the moment, our close pals, the Saudis, offer their hospitality and a nice little stipend to Idi Amin, the syphilitic butcher of Uganda. The world responds by not bringing up the matter. America looks the other way at South Africa and most of the world admires the Soviet Union, a cold place of jails and repression.

Under such circumstances, the British should be forgiven. They have things backwards, but they are the perfect representatives of us all--willing to fight for what matters least after ignoring what matters most.