BEIRUT -- Twelve years of war in Lebanon have produced norms of conduct which help people adapt to the unending chaos. There are the chronically depressed and there are the diehard optimists who cling to whatever hope is left amid Lebanon's ruins. There is even one group of people who have managed to turn violence into a profitable enterprise.

Anarchy has produced ''entrepreneurs'' who have mastered the skills of a flourishing war business: arms trade, conducting smuggling operations with products from narcotics to luxury automobiles, and kidnapping for ransom. These managers of violence are found within all Lebanese factions and, in some instances, cooperate with foreign sponsors who provide security cover and a distribution network.

Two factors account for the striking resiliency of the average person. One is the hope that things will get better simply because they can't get much worse. This is the attitude of the middle classes, who are trapped in the war cycle and have no choice but to believe in the possibility of breaking out of it.

Then there is the simple driving passion for survival. Physical survival is the most immediate concern. Then comes economic survival, which became a pressing concern after the drastic loss in the exchange value of the Lebanese pound in the past two years. Finally, mundane concerns figure prominently: the availability of certain food products, gasoline shortages, electric power cuts and water supply. While the first two criteria for survival -- security and the economy -- are beyond one's rational control, mundane concerns are the key to daily accomplishment, to achieving a sense success.

It is a real achievement to have electric power on a Saturday night after weeks of hiding in overcrowded shelters to escape indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas. Or to get a few gallons of gasoline after hours of shoving and pushing and, in some instances, armed duels between impatient militiamen. Or to drive home safely after being stuck in heavy traffic jams at a time when car bombs are haunting the populace.

People defuse their frustration by empty debates over insignificant issues, such as the inconsequential election of a deputy speaker, the countless abortive security plans, the opening of airports and the closing of gambling facilities.

The average person perceives that developments in Lebanon -- including internal sectarian feuds -- continue to preoccupy the world, and particularly the superpowers. This illusion of importance, reinforced by the local press, can become a psychological tranquilizer that preserves a sense of apparent normality in the country.

But beneath the veneer of resiliency and daily accomplishments lies a fear of the unknown, a fear of the worst happening, of the senseless violence to which no one is immune. In other places, violence may serve as an instrument of protest or a way to terrify the enemy. In Lebanon violence often has no identifiable target, no return address. In its ugliest forms -- car bombs -- violence in Lebanon is aimed neither at deposing a government nor at publicizing specific concerns. Rather, its aim is to terrorize innocent civilians.

Who benefits from this ritual of violence? We know why Catholics and Protestants are at each other's throats in Northern Ireland. We know what the Basques in Spain are asking for, or what the contras are seeking in Nicaragua. But do we know why schoolchildren are being slaughtered in Lebanon? How can the killing of thousands of innocent civilians ''Arabize'' Lebanon, liberate Palestine, or bring about an Islamic order in Lebanon?

One aspect of violence has assumed a more purposeful character. The kidnapping of Westerners in West Beirut is the most politicized form of violence Lebanon has known during the war. The kidnapping of a dozen Westerners has become an effective tool for its perpetrators, attracting world attention, humiliating democracies and causing crippling problems for superpowers.

Clearly, this is not the deed of free-lance terrorists or fanatics shouting death to America. Kidnappers in Beirut are hired for their skills, but the decision to hire them is taken by politicians and sophisticated strategists who do not wish to be held accountable for the deed.

Violence has paid off in Lebanon for those terrorists with global ambitions and objectives. But in such a high-powered game the damage is no longer confined to marginal Lebanon. Thus no one will be served by seeking to ''quarantine'' Lebanon, as Secretary of State George Shultz once recommended, but rather to help the Lebanese state quarantine those who, in the name of justice and peace, have turned the country into the killing field of the Middle East.

The writer teaches politics at the American University of Beirut.