No matter which side of the Bitburg debate people are on -- should he go or shouldn't he -- everyone from Helmut Kohl to Elie Wiesel seems to agree that there is, or ought to be, no such thing as collective responsibility. As Wiesel said in his White House address, "I do not believe in collective guilt nor in collective responsibility. Only the killers are guilty."

Can that be true? To start with, it is not the view of the common law. If you rob a bank and shoot the teller, you are not the only person guilty of murder. So is your unarmed accomplice. And the driver of the getaway car. In short, anyone who knowingly joined the criminal enterprise. The law spreads wide the net of guilt in order to express a motruth: When you join a killing enterprise your private moral scruples do not limit your guilt. You may not be a killer, but if you sign up with killers, you are party to the deed.

In fact, Wiesel's own argument against the Bitburg visit rests (correctly) on the idea of collective guilt. Wiesel implored the president not to go because of "the presence of SS graves." He did not inquire into the individual deeds of these SS men. He did not need to. To be a member of the SS is enough. Did any of these men pull the trigger at Malmedy, where the Waffen SS murdered 71 American POWs? Or at Oradour, where they murdered 642 Frenchmen? Or was it their comrades? It hardly matters. These crimes would simply compound the guilt; to be a member of the SS is guilt enough. When you join the most monstrous of killing organizations, when you carry its seal, you become responsible for its crimes.

The collective guilt of the German Army is of a different order. The SS was designed to kill, the Wehrmacht to defend the killers and conquer at their command. This does not make the ordinary German soldier a mass murderer. But that said, he does not become the moral equivalent of, say, an American soldier. Between mass murder and ordinary soldierhood lies a vast moral no-man's land, and in that no-man's-land lies Bitburg. Soldiers who die defending a regime of incomprehe nsible criminality are not criminals, but they bear -- let us be charitable -- a taint. (Which is why even without the SS, Bitburg's dead are far down any list of those deserving to be graced by the presence of an American president.) A soldier cannot totally divorce himself from his cause.

When Lord Mountbatten died, he left instructions that the Japanese not be invited to his funeral. He could not forgive the way they had treated his men as prisoners in Southeast Asia during the war. Now, certainly only those Japanese who tortured his men were torturers. But, just as certainly, the nation that produced these torturers and produced the war in which the tortures took place bears some taint. Not enough, by any means, to warrant a trial. But enough, certainly, to warrant exclusion from a funeral.

We apply the same logic of collective guilt (and measured response) to white South Africans. Why, after all, are they banned from civilized international life (such as sports), if not for the feeling that by acquiescing to apartheid, they bear some guilt -- for which ostracism is not too disproportionate a penalty.

But what about those with no conceivable connection to a historical crime? Two-thirds of Germans today, Chancellor Helmut Kohl likes to remind us, are too young to remember the war. Surely they do not bear collective responsibilit y for Germany's past.

Surely they do. They bear, of course, no guilt. But they bear responsibility. The distinction is important.

Ask yourself: None of us was around when treaties were made and broken with the Indians a hundred years ago; we bear no guilt; are we absolved of responsibility to make redress today for the sins of our fathers?

I wasn't born when Japanese-Americans were interned during World War II. If Congress decides to apologize or to compensate the victims with my tax dollars (Sen. Spark Matsunaga introduced the resolution yesterday), will I have suffered an injustice?

I think not. The point is this. There is such a thing as a corporate identity. My American identity entitles me to certain corporate privileges: life, liberty, happiness pursued, columns uncensored. These benefits I receive wholly undeserved. They are mine by accident of birth. So are America's debts. I cannot claim one and disdain the other.

During the centuries of slavery in America, my ancestors were being chased by unfriendly authorities across Eastern Europe. I feel, and bear, no guilt for the plight of blacks. But America's life is longer than mine. America has sins, and obligations that flow from those sins. To be American today is to share in those obligations.

Or are my children going to default on Treasury bonds issued today on the grounds that they were not yet born when these collective obligations were incurred?

It is good politics around V-E Day to deny the notion of collective responsibility. Only, it is nonsense. Collective responsibility is an elementary principle of national life. It is not just that without that principle there would be no national apologies (such as that proposed by Matsunaga) or war reparations (such as those given by democratic Germany to Nazi Germany's victims). There would be no bond market.