THAT MAMMOTH, sickened silence that follows the Catherine Fuller trial hangs over us like a fog.

Sure, now and then somebody shakes his head at the television set and says "Bring back the electric chair," and a lot of people have muttered that we should mutilate Fuller's eight murderers the way they mutilated her before they killed her in an alley.

But it's the silence that's stunning. Ten years ago we'd have babbling with explanations, shouting the latest theories. Think of what we'd have blamed the murder on: poverty, macho, left-wing agitation, right-wing racism, deficient infant vitamin intake, imperialism, television cartoon shows, permissiveness, oppression, Watergate corruption, police brutality, absentee landlords, heroin addiction or PCP craziness, unemployment, too little welfare money or so much of it that it drives families apart, a rogue chromosome, lack of everything from role models to psychotherapy, media sensationalism, media ignorance . . . .

We would have blamed it on everything but the eight young men who stomped Catherine Fuller to death and shoved a pipe up her rectum, after one of them said "Let's get paid."

Let's get paid: Levy Rouse, Snot Rag, Hollywood, Fella and the rest of them were using the language of work to justify a crime. They seemed to say that they deserved the $50 in Fuller's coin purse, they deserved to vent their frustrations, they deserved to lash out against a legal structure that either ignored or persecuted them, they had to express their envy of a jobholder who, as a black woman, had a better shot at a job than they did.

By Oct. 1, 1984, the day they killed Mrs. Fuller, it had gotten hard for most Americans to buy that kind of thinking anymore. The paradigm, as historian Thomas Kuhn would say, had changed. Kuhn was talking about science, not crime, when he wrote a book called "Structure of Scientific Revolutions" but he had a lot to say about the long, lurching process by which the world changes its mind about things, moving, say, from Ptolemy's earth-centered cosmos to Galileo's solar system.

Paradigms are accepted explanations for things. But sooner or later, somebody comes up with a question the paradigm can't answer, an exception that the rule doesn't cover. Finally, the paradigm collapses, and along comes an Einstein to replace a Newton's paradigm and the process starts anew.

Lovely. But things get nasty. People depend on the old paradigms to justify their existence. Galileo learned this when he tried to get rid of Ptolemaic astronomy and found himself being shown the instruments of torture by the Catholic Church.

The same problem can be found in the social sciences, which have dominated discussion of social ills in America in this century.

Take paradigms of crime. The Marxist paradigm blamed it on class warfare and alienation. The fascist paradigm blamed bad genes and a lack of national will. But the paradigm that came to be generally accepted in mid-century America was the one that blamed crime on a variety of environmental conditions -- malnutrition, TV violence and so on -- most of which could be corrected by governments passing laws and spending lots of money.

A lot of people came to have a vested interest in this paradigm: social workers, public-school teachers, social scientists, liberal politicians, the Department of Health and Human Services, newspaper columnists, lawyers, urban consultants, even the conservatives who made a living railing against it.

Best of all, to the modern and scientific way of looking at problems, this paradigm was blessedly free of "subjective" or "judgmental" elements, such as the morality that held our erring forebears responsible for themselves. Instead, social science showed us a world of huge and subtle forces colliding and colluding to create the environments that in turn created us.

Worried about corrupt and degenerate people? Change their environments. Bulldoze slums. Build the famous Harlem school that has no windows, so that the children will be freed from the dangerous view of their homes and neighborhoods.

After all, criminals weren't responsible for their crimes, society was.

As long ago as the 1950s, Leonard Bernstein wrote a song to satirize this madness in "West Side Story." In it, a street gang that argued "we're depraved on account of we're deprived," sang, "We ain't no delinquents, we're misunderstood."

Rouse, Snot Rag, Hollywood & Co. could have sung it in all seriousness as they pushed Catherine Fuller into the alley to "get paid."

Hadn't the very best minds in society been saying all their lives that illiterate louts like them weren't responsible for themselves?

Of course, times have changed. It's gotten hard to believe all that stuff, a fact that the Republicans have seized on to stunning advantage. But, as they say in the Army, there's always somebody who doesn't get the word.

Too bad it had to be the murderers of a mother of six children. They killed her in front of a crowd of witnesses, in daylight, as thoughtlessly as they might have played a game of touch football. And bragged about it later.

"Let's get paid," they said. Nobody ever told them they were doing anything wrong -- illegal, yes, but not, you know, evil.

So is it our fault for not telling them? It's true, we didn't. But to cite a nearly forgotten maxim of civilization, ignorance of the law is no excuse. And nowhere in the Ten Commandments did God say he had to read your Miranda rights to you first.

In any case, there's another victim in this murder, and it's the old blame-society paradigm. It had been dying for years, as all the best laws and money failed to have the predicted effect on crime. Besides, it never explained the most important exceptions of all -- the honest, hardworking people who come out of the same environment as the Levy Rouses -- people, as it happens, like Catherine Fuller.

So there's not much to say, a kind of odd silence about the whole thing -- a few remarks about the electric chair, the occasional attempt to blame it on society, but nobody's buying it.

We don't have a new paradigm yet. We'll get one, with all its own vested interests, and it's apt to have something to do with personal responsibility, the existence of evil and moral analysis of social ills. But right now we're staring out at the fog, the chaos. In the silence.