FINALLY, IT ALL comes down to a matter of responsibility -- willingness to accept the consequences of your acts, to live with who and what you are and where you have been. This is the condition of maturity and civility among individuals and it is just as apt a description of mature, civil governments and societies. Right now a lot of argument is going on in this country that touches on the question of responsibilty, only almost entirely in a negative, fugitive way. Americans are trying to ignore or shed responsibility for their own recent history in far-flung parts of the world.

The Indochinese suffering in their makeshift, hell-hole camps are refugees from their own lands and peoples. Many of those in this country who commiserate most ostentatiously with them are refugees from their own history, their own complicity in the Indochinese fate. Americans, as it seems, will acknowledge an American contribution to the Indochinese refugees' misery only to the extent that they can blame it on their political opponents from the days of the war. So one-time anti-war people dwell on the consequences of the bombing, and one-time bombers dwell on the fatuity of those who used to argue that the brutal officials now in control in Indochina were just a bunch of passionate social reformers. Neither group will stare very hard at its own implication in the present horror or -- and this is the point -- at the shared responsibility of the country, as an entity, for that horror.

That brings us to the newest version of this flight from the national past -- and the national self: the war between the ayatollah and the shah. This is written at a moment when the perils and uncertainties are unresolved and events are changing. But there are some things that simply are not subject to change no matter what happens in Tehran or Washington, and among them is America's responsibility for its own conduct and its own associations over the years. For roughly three decades this country made common cause with the shah of Iran, acquiesced in his brutalities and avariciousness at home, got the good of his friendship in pursuit of our own security and other interests, and gave him and his government to believe that we were not exactly weighted down with guilt over the condition of the Iranian society. The "best people" danced at his embassy in Washington and soaked up his exotic food and drink; only a fringe protested his dealings with his own people. All this is what made official American skittishness about receiving him when he got kicked out of Iran so mindless, selfish and disgusting. And it is also necessary backgroung to understanding the irresponsibility of those voices that have been suggesting we should somehow kick him out of the United States so as to eliminate our "provocation" of the Ayatollah Khomenini.

It's not just that the ayatollah is extremely selective in deciding what shall provoke him -- note that the Mexican embassy in Tehran was not seized during the many months of the shah's repose in Mexico. The people who have earnestly begun to explain to us how we are needlessly provoking the Iranians in general and ayatollah in particular by harboring the shah overlook more than this. They overlook our obligation to acknowledge and stand accountable for our undertakings and our behavior and commitments made over a 30-year stretch. After all, we're not talking about a military commitment here or an obligation to uphold a corrupt government. We are talking about nothing more inflammatory than giving asylum to a used-up Middle Eastern potentate and dictator who was -- and is -- one of "ours."

No one can envy the president. He is responsible to and for many people and many things: the Americans who were seized in the embassy, the civil order at home, a signal abroad and there is a fundamental level of commitment and reliability beneath which we, as a country, will not sink. National honor does not require guns and bombs and by-jingo interventions. But it does require that this elementary willingness to live with our responsibilities by maintained. We live in an age and a world that, largely at our urging, have seen countries yield up their lethal weapons or the option of building them to a common defense -- to reliance on the word and good faith of allies and friends. Something consistent and unflappable and steadfast is indispensable to preserving the relationships upon which those alliances have been built. And that is what is at issure in the debate about whether we should now disencumber ourselves of the sick and hunted shah of Iran.