Several months ago, when yet another convict was executed in Virginia or Texas, when yet more college kids gathered outside the prison walls to cheer for death, when the ACLU vainly clambered up the appeals process and the Supreme Court did its imitation of a Roman emperor and turned thumbs down on the condemned, I tried to write yet again about capital punishment, but I could not. I had nothing new to say.

So by way of truth in labeling, I am about to write about the New Bedford gang rape and I have, I fear, nothing new to say about that either. But unlike capital punishment, where some of the more ridiculous statements get jettisoned, when it comes to rape they get repeated time and time again. Now in New Bedford people are asking what the victim did to deserve it.

Well, for starters she wanted a pack of cigarettes and a drink. That is why, we are told, she went to Big Dan's tavern Sunday, March 6, at about 9 p.m. She stumbled out about two hours later, her clothes torn from her. She had been raped repeatedly on the pool table by four men, while others in the bar were either too afraid to do anything or, in the spirit of Monday night football, cheered on the rapists.

For obvious reasons, much has been made of this rape. Reporters have, like the blind men and the elephant, patted New Bedford in all the right places trying to figure out how this thing could have happened. The New York Times made much of the city's unemployment rate, which has been high ever since the textile mills left, presumbly taking morality with them. Other reports cited the fact that the alleged rapists and some of the onlookers were natives of Portugal, a Mediterranean country of fine wines, terrific cork and macho men. This has predictably outraged the Portuguese community which in its anger has failed to point out that rape is so common in America, it need not be imported. The domestic version is thriving.

What is remarkable about the whole exercise is how nothing much has changed. For all the talk about rape recently, for all that has been written, for all the progress supposedly made by the women's movement, people are still trying to explain the rape by wondering what the victim did to provoke it. This sort of stuff must be as old as human nature. A variation of this comes up time and time again with the Holocaust: Sure millions of Jews died, but what did they do to deserve it? Nothing!

And the same is true of that woman in New Bedford. Still, one person said of the rape victim, "She went in there for one reason, and it was not cigarettes. She was looking for it." Another said, "For them the alleged rapists to do it, she had to do something." And we are told that these sentiments are typical. Okay, she did something. I am willing to believe that. I am willing to believe that something set off her assailants. Maybe she was wearing tight pants or maybe she flirted or maybe she had a drink and then took off all her clothes and said something suggestive--first in English and then, just to make sure she was understood, in Portuguese. It does not matter. Nothing that she did that was in any way sexual could either excuse or explain a response that was not sexual, but violent instead.

That, of course, is the truth of it. Rape has nothing to do with sex, but with violence. It is an expression of rage or hostility or fear--or all of them at the same time. In New Bedford, the rape was a virtual lynching. Like a black in the old South, the woman had broken some sort of taboo, maybe a sexual one, maybe not, but the response had as much to do with sex as a southern lynching had to do with justice. If you can blame the woman for her own rape, then you can blame the black for his own lynching. Maybe he should not have smiled at a white woman.

None of this is new. All of this has been said before and the truth of it, if not known to those who merely looked, is certainly known to the rapists. They should, all of them, be penalized to the maximum extent possible--the rapists, of course, but even those who merely watched. I don't feel sorry for any of them.

They asked for it.