SEN. HOWARD Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) may have done us all a great service by blurting out what a number of people have been whispering since the terrorist raids on the Rome and Vienna airports.

"Maybe," he said on a Cleveland television interview that is crackling across the land, "we're at that point in the world where Mr. Qaddafi has to be eliminated."

There you have it: a U.S. senator talking like a mobster, a terrorist or a CIA agent in the bad old days when "taking out" an annoying world leader was in vogue. We now see how terrorism maims minds, too.

"Frankly I have difficulty with my own thinking on it," Metzenbaum added. As well he might. He was a critic of the "rogue elephant" that the CIA became during the years of targeting a Lumumba or a Castro for "elimination with extreme prejudice" -- revelations that caused the agency, and the country, shame, disgrace and extreme chagrin.

Metzenbaum repeated his Ramboesque bombshell in an interview with the Cleveland Plain Dealer. And he was shown on the "Today" show in the unlikely guise of a liberal wanting to unleash the CIA's William Casey and a Democrat making Ronald Reagan look like Little Lord Fauntleroy in his approach to the crisis.

"I have difficulty in distinguishing between a warplane dropping a bomb on the headquarters of Qaddafi and perhaps taking the lives of dozens or hundreds of people or a singular kind of attack," Metzenbaum explained.

"A singular attack may be justified," he said, if Qaddafi is truly behind the Christmas week atrocities at the Rome and Vienna airports.

Offing Qaddafi might satisfy the blood lust of some Americans, but the consequences could be horrendous. The U.S. knows better than most the trauma of losing the head of state to gunfire. Arab countries, as one, would scream for vengeance and the hit-squads would be dispatched to give equal treatment to Ronald Reagan and, for that matter, Howard Metzenbaum.

Besides possibly starting World War III, the murder would be illegal.

The Executive Order governing U.S. intelligence operations (which was drawn in the wake of the Church Committee's disclosure of previous CIA excesses) specifically forbids assassination: "No person employed by or acting on behalf of the U.S. government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in assassination." Paragraph 212 forbids indirect participation: "No agency of the Intelligence Community shall participate in or request any person to undertake activities forbidden by this order."

Nothing could be clearer. And Metzenbaum is a lawyer.

"It's sad," said James Abourezk, a former Senate colleague of Metzenbaum's and now the chairman of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. "What kind of hysteria gets into people? Whose turn will it be next to show we can be as barbaric as the terrorists?"

Still another "solution" to the problem -- the stalking down and elimination of Abu Nidal, the alleged leader of the Christmas killers -- poses no moral dilemma for many people.

A progressive Catholic priest, who said he probably shouldn't be talking that way, said that to him it was like downing a gunman who is spraying machine gun fire in a shopping mall -- a menace to public safety.

Clark Clifford, the ultimate Washington lawyer and adviser to presidents, has "no qualms" about "taking care of" individual terrorists.

"We are a government of laws, but now has come up a situation which is not encompassed by our concept of government by law, and what we must do is defend ourselves the best way we can," he told a press breakfast. "It doesn't bother me a bit," he said.

He does not want the law forbidding assassinations repealed.

"We should encourage Nidal's enemies to help us," he said. "Just get it done. Don't talk about it."

A Washington wimp today is somebody who wants the murderers caught -- but brought to trial. The reason given for rejecting such legal niceties is a curious one. A trial, it is argued, would mean "publicity" for the butchers. But what kind? Someone who murdered an 11-year old schoolgirl in the Rome airport would hardly garner sympathy for his cause.

What is most dismaying about all this verbal show of force is that if the same energy and boldness were displayed in attacking the root causes of terrorism, the world might become a safer place. But nothing is said. Most see the issue, with Clifford, as "almost insoluble." And few American politicians have dared beard the Israelis on the question of a Palestinian homeland. "You are going to have terrorism as long as you have these million or so Palestinians who feel they have been displaced from their country," says Clifford.

Says Abourezk, "The more hopeless they feel the easier it is to recruit them for suicide missions."