SUPPOSE PRESIDENT Reagan had gone on television Monday night to tell the American people that instead of our bombing Libyan military and terrorist targets, an American assassin had fired a bullet through Muammar Qadaffi's head. Would we have cheered?

As it happened, the United States used air strikes and most Americans felt justified, even a bit noble, about attacking a regime headed by a man President Reagan had called "this mad dog of the Middle East." This judgment seemed to hold despite the loss of two American airmen and the numbers of Libyan dead and wounded, including children. Many of us were perhaps even disappointed to learn on Wednesday that the bombs had not killed Qaddafi.

By Friday, an unnamed U.S. official involved in planning the raid was being quoted in The Washington Post as saying "We hoped we would get him but nobody was sure where he would be that night." Meanwhile, after a bill was introduced to expand presidential power to respond to terrorism, Alabama's Sen. Jeremiah Denton said he believed that had Qaddafi "become deceased as a result of our counterstrike, that would have been within the intent of this bill."

So wouldn't we have cheered a presidential announcement of an assassination instead of the air strikes? After all, wouldn't it have been more efficient -- and more moral -- to solve this problem by killing one man than many? Isn't killing Qadaffi as one of many victims in a bombing raid worse than singling him out with a sniper's crosshairs? If we complain that our smart bombs weren't smart enough, and that our technological failure makes us guilty of killing the wrong people, shouldn't we employ an even more precise method -- assassination -- to make sure we kill the right ones?

The answer, despite the power of this body-count logic, is no.

The United States has entered what may be a long and bloody conflict with Libya. The hard-learned lessons of moral philosophy teach us, above all, that in our battles we must be true to the principles that underpin our American community. Among other things, that means that no matter how many Americans are assassinated by Qaddafi and his agents, we should not respond in kind.

The moral condemnation of assassination is as old as Western civilization and as recent as the outcry that greeted reports of CIA attempts to kill Fidel Castro in the early 1960s and the Phoenix program in Vietnam, in which we attempted to destroy the Viet Cong infrastructure by killing key leaders. These acts came to seem the epitome of the corruption of American policy, and assassination was banned by an executive order signed by President Ford in 1976 and reaffirmed by Presidents Carter and Reagan.

Assassination, like many other ugly and immoral acts, is a fact of life in the struggle between many nations and political groups -- witness the assassination battles between Israel and Black September Palestinians. America used such tactics two decades ago, but they were relegated to a dank and furtive corner of policy making, a clandestine business that must be kept away from our public leaders, the people who symbolize the American community.

Presidents cannot announce assassination proudly on television. Indeed, for all the hopes that may have existed in the administration that Qaddafi might be killed, official statements were careful to point out that we were not bombing his compound because he lived there, but because it was a "nerve center," in the words of Pentagon spokesman Robert Sims: "That was the target and not any individual." Secretary of State George Schultz said: "We have a general stance that opposes direct efforts of that kind."

Why such concern about the precise moral status of our planning? There are three nearly absolute taboos that occur throughout Western moral reflection on the political use of force: one ought not to poison wells, uproot fruit trees, or engage in assassination. The reasons for the first two are obvious: the poisoned well sickens and kills indiscriminately; the uprooted fruit tree is a symbol of a way of war that lays a land waste for years to come, so that no one can gain a livelihood from it even years after the war is over.

But with assassination, it is precisely those held to be most guilty of murderous acts who are the most likely targets. It is surely not considerations of proportionality, for assassination will kill a few while legitimate military actions will kill many more. The Borgias did not kill many people but they used assassination. Why are they reviled in the judgment of history, when generals responsible for the deaths of thousands are respected as heroes?

I suspect that it's because assassination, like well-poisoning or orchard-killing, strikes at the very fundaments of human life in community. This argument may be difficult for Americans to grasp because of our bias toward thinking about moral issues in terms of the rights of the individual, rather than the existence of community. But try to remember your reactions when President Kennedy was assassinated, or his brother Bobby, or Martin Luther King, Jr.; or when assassination attempts were made on George Wallace, or President Ford, or President Reagan.

Like most targets of assassination, these men were public figures, and the attacks on them were thus attacks not just on symbols of the community, but on crucial parts of its structure. The community itself was endangered, be it the nation or the civil rights movement. Where, we wondered, would it stop?

Further, Western thinkers have traditionally held that killing in war is not morally the same as killing by assassination. Indeed, war does not aim at killing as such, but rather is the application of force to achieve political ends. In principle, if these ends can be achieved without any loss of life, then the need for war is over. Moreover, killing in war has a random quality to it: specific enemy soldiers are not singled out for death or life, and who lives or dies is to a great degree purely a matter of accident or chance. By contrast, assassination's primary object is the killing of one individual, and the reason for targeting him is something he personally has done or represents.

National Security Council officials reflected this tradition when they drafted a statement, to be used in the event of Qaddafi's death, that described the death as "fortuitous" -- fortunate, but happening by chance -- according to a report in The Washington Post.

All these moral arguments reflect a deep and wide history of thought on the necessity of limitations in dealing with our enemies, even mortal enemies.

The moral intuitions behind this are not, I think, specifically religious. But St. Augustine expressed them in the fifth century when he wrote:

"What is evil in war? It is not the deaths of some, who will eventually die anyway. These are the things which are to be blamed in war: the desire for harming, the cruelty of avenging, an unruly and implacable animosity, the rage of rebellion, the lust of domination and the like."

In other words, such evil intentions as these are what is really wrong, and even if we must fight for the sake of the right, we must avoid them. I think this is one fundamental reason we instinctively recoil from assassination as a method of combating terrorism, yet accept military action, despite the greater cost in lives of the latter. War, for all its evils, requires a certain nobility of spirit. But assassination seems to require just the opposite.

Assassination is too much like murder. The random deaths of war may grieve us, yet we can accept them and go on, not feeling like murderers ourselves and not regarding our former enemies as murderers, either, when friendly relations are restored. It is also like murder because it is likely to be the result of some "implacable animosity"; it directly requires the death of a political leader, not just a change of policy. Assassination is thus bad as such, not just for our community but for the moral health of its members, of their souls.

Hugo Grotius, the father of modern international law, commented in his "On the Laws of War and Peace" that the peoples of antiquity recognized that victory in war gave them the right, as well as the power, to kill all their enemies, including the women and children; yet they quickly also realized that the greatest benefits could be had by not taking advantage of this right.

Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, argued in the fourth century that a Christian has a duty to oppose injustice, using force if necessary. For Ambrose, though, one is morally allowed to do no more harm to an enemy than the enemy was prepared to do to him. This is maximum allowable force. And if we can defend the victim, punish the evildoer and prevent his return without going to that maximum, that is the moral course to take.

Nor may one hate the aggressor as a person: it is the sin, not the sinner, that is to be attacked. Christian soldiers in the Middle Ages were required to do penance after battle, lest they had allowed individual hatreds to creep into their motives for fighting the enemy.

In the 19th century, a distinction was drawn between "public" and "private" wars in the writings of Francis Lieber, the principal author of the first American military manual on right conduct in war. This distinction resembles the one made in the Middle Ages between "bellum" (war between political entities) and "duellum" (the duel, fought between personal antagonists). In "public" conflicts one does not fight because of personal animosities or hatreds, and in principle one does not wish the death of citizens -- even soldiers -- of the enemy state. Clearly, assassination resembles private duellum more than public bellum.

There are times, of course, when assassination loses its moral stigma. We would have welcomed the success of an attempt to assassinate Hitler, but we would have felt best if it came from within his community as an effort to overthrow a tyrant, much as Secretary Schultz said on Thursday that a coup to overthrow Qaddafi would be "all to the good."

Despite the moral dilemma that the Libyan bombing (along with all war) presents, we don't have to be historians to just "know" inside ourselves that there are the right and wrong ways to act, even in the struggle against evil: assassination is wrong; yet military action can be right. For all our America's diversity and individualism it is clear that the underlying fabric which makes us a community still holds, and our beliefs about assassination are part of that fabric.

The international arena is a community as well, dependent on unspoken, intuitive limits as well as on written international law. Assassination tears at the fabric of community without which law would not be possible. We Americans instinctively know this -- we have been on the receiving end of assassination of major public figures.

That may be one of the reasons we have reacted so strongly against terrorism. Terrorists regularly assassinate their enemies. Whether the victim is an American ambassador, a United States Army sergeant, or an American civilian on board a targeted airplane we should not think of these killings as anything but assassinations carried out by terrorist figures for political purposes. What is so evil here is not these deaths, bitterly regrettable as they are, but the way they have been caused and the reasons for which these individuals have been killed.

Terrorism strikes at community by acts aimed as showing that no one is safe who relies on the community. This is why terrorism is, in moral terms, so terribly wrong. We do not gain by responding in kind, even if we were the kind of people who could do so.

James Turner Johnson, chairman of the Department of Religion at Rutgers University, is the author of several books on the ethics of war, including "Can Modern War Be Just?".