A friend in Boston says the police set out to kill the man. Another friend in Washington agrees. Someone else said she knew the police would never let him live, while others simply wonder how it is possible for sharpshooters to shoot at a truck and hit the driver four times, once fatally in the temple. Norman Mayer is gone, but the questions about his death are not.

Mayer, the subject of all this speculation, is the man who held the Washington Monument hostage earlier this month. He said he had 1,000 pounds of dynamite in the back of his truck and threatened to blow up the Monument unless the media paid more attention to the danger posed by nuclear weapons.

The prudent thing to do, of course, is to say that if Mayer was not a nut, he was certainly misguided. The proper way to communicate with the news media is by writing a letter or, barring that, hiring a public relations firm as so many university presidents do. It is also prudent to point out that Mayer had a history of histrionics, had actually attempted to buy dynamite and had to be taken at his word. The police were right in insisting that he not be permitted to leave the Monument grounds.

All that being said, though, it is hard to see how both the police and the mayor, not to mention the president, could view the operation as a success. The fact remains that Mayer was armed with nothing but outrageous gall and was killed by "sharpshooters" who were aiming, we were told, at the vehicle and not at its driver. This was not the triumph it was said to have been, but a debacle instead.

Nevertheless, the president almost immediately called the Park Police and told them what a wonderful job they had done. Not to be outdone -- and he certainly wasn't -- Mayor Marion Barry popped up on the television screen with the frequency of a McDonald's commercial to tell us that the police had done the best possible job. He ended his day on ABC's Nightline show, patting both himself and the police so hard on the back one would have thought Norman Mayer was still alive. He was, though, then in the jurisdiction of the medical examiner.

That performance of Media Mayor was similar to the one he put in after the Klan rally. Then, a demonstration by about 30 Klansmen turned into a riot. A crowd of anti-Klan demonstrators, puny in comparison to other Washington gatherings, was allowed to get out of hand. Stores were looted, policemen were injured, and yet the mayor said only that things could have been a lot worse. For some merchants, not to mention the injured police officers, that was hardly the case.

The city can ill-afford two more successes such as these. They both raise questions about the effectiveness and training of the police. When it comes to the Klan rally, you have to wonder why the police seemed so unprepared for the violence. It would seem that the Metropolitan and Park Police owe some people an explanation. None has been forthcoming, though.

Something went wrong at the Monument also. There, the police did not do what they said they meant to do. Mayer was killed and we do not know if the vaunted sharpshooters couldn't hit the side of barn -- or if they really hit the target they intended. The city's politicians, who would have at least had their curiosity piqued if Mayer had been a resident shot on the street, simply went on with their business.

Mayer's first mistake was playing with (nonexistent) dynamite. Maybe his death could not have been avoided. Maybe no sharpshooters are that good. But these are assurances given by the police who could not be expected to say otherwise. As for the city's politicians, they have either been mum on the subject or, like the mayor, have smothered the incident with oodles of admiring adjectives, apparently thinking that if you label something a triumph it will shoo away questions. All it does, though, is raise further questions, not the least of them being: Did Norman Mayer really have to die, and if not, why doesn't anyone care?