In the movie "Death Wish" a witty exchange has Charles Bronson, playing upstanding citizen turned vigilante, posing a tough old question that the ordeal of TWA Flight 847 brings back to mind.

What do you call it, Bronson asks angrily (he's just buried his murdered wife), when the law's restraints play into the hands of thugs? "Civilization," his son-in- law answers.

The response is double-edged, but there's truth as well as sarcasm in it. "Civilization," which includes innocent passage among its basic values, makes terrorism both possible and tempting; and terror, in turn, tempts civilization to betray those same values.

The hijacking of Flight 847, like the Iranian hostage crisis and the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, brings out the longing to hit back and hit back hard.

Yet the still, small voice of civilization -- an acquired taste to be sure, as for certain food and drink -- warns that unfocused reprisal, with no clear connection between crime and punishment, may bring only glandular satisfaction, brief and perhaps even self-defeating.

It would gratify the beast in everyone to "make a crater of West Beirut" or of the Shiite "training camps" in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. But visiting violence on a fuzzy target, for hypothetical and speculative purposes, would constitute a handsome tribute to terror, levied against civilization.

So Bronson's son-in-law was right about the source of our vulnerability to thugs, urban or international. "Civilization" is a problem because it is a blessing. It demands trust, civility, freedom of movement, and it also demands measure, proportionality and accuracy in their defense.

The possible effect of the now apparently abandoned Reagan doctrine of "swift and certain retribution" upon the terrorist network is a matter of speculation. Retribution might deter. It might also kill the innocent with the guilty, incite worse acts, escalate the cruelty and violence and (this is the worry of FBI Director William Webster, who surely knows whereof he speaks) incite it to take a foothold on our own shores.

All acts of terrorism and atrocity arouse the "fight or flight" instinct, a glandular emanation from the primitive brain stem. That instinct begs for indulgence, in word if not in deed. President Reagan seems to be fighting it manfully, winning a few and losing a few as do we all.

Having said many sensible things at his news conference Tuesday evening, the president went out to Indiana the very next day and declared that the United States would never "cave in" to the hijackers. The Jaycees waved flags, stomped their feet and chanted, "USA! USA!"

What, if anything, did it mean? The identification of discussion or negotiation, or even compromise, with "caving in" is bold but beside the point when one is dealing with politically enraged people, holding hostages.

"Mindless" is the word we often (mindlessly) associate with terrorism, but it is a journalistic-political word, not one that flows from informed analysis of the thing itself. Terrorism is sometimes mindless. Often it is not. Not only is it calibrated to play upon, and exploit, civilized values and vulnerabilities; it is often rooted in political or religious views that, however alien, are not mindless in the sense of being immune to reason or analysis. The people who study terrorism professionally do not use the term. They view terrorism as a phenomenon of this world about which, as about all sorts of unpleasant things, there is much to be observed and learned, and to which there can be such a thing as an artful response.

Behind the scenes, there must be some negotiation. But in public we seem to be demanding of the hijackers what they usually demand at first -- "unconditional surrender."

It has been a troublesome idea ever since U. S. Grant thought of it, in a Civil War campaign about a century and a quarter ago. "Unconditional surrender" hasn't always served civilization well. It may (repeat, may) have lengthened World War II in Europe by disheartening the anti- Hitler Germans, letting the Red Army advance far deeper into central Europe than was strictly good for civilization.

Is there not a duty to be as crafty in defense of civilized values as terrorists are in assailing and exploiting them? If so, it may mean coming up with a better idea than lobbing one into the ayatollah's prayer room.