MEANWHILE, ON THE steps of the Capitol, for the cameras, several Republican congresspeople were busting up a Toshiba radio with sledgehammers. The organizer and leading spirit of the wrecking party was Rep. Helen Delich Bentley of Maryland, who was breathing heavily about treason.

As street theater, it spoke mainly of congressional frustration. There are recurrent impulses in Congress to go after Japan on grounds that it is too outrageously successful and that the flood of Japanese products into this country is an insupportable blow to American pride and prestige. That leads to the temptation to wrap oneself in the flag and try to strike back. But how? Smashing a radio ought to put the Japanese in their place.

Toshiba Machine did a despicable thing in selling highly sensitive technology to the Soviets. So did the Norwegian company, Kongsberg, and it may have struck Japanese viewers as they watched the television film of the sledgehammer scene that there was no reference to Norway or Norwegian products.

As for treason, the central and original treason in which this whole episode of Toshiba and the machine tools originated was the sale of American naval secrets to the Soviets by the Walker spy ring. And the Walkers were, unfortunately, Americans. Not all of the security failures in this affair -- nor the most damaging -- were in Japan.

The sledgehammer is one of the standard symbols in politics. It is a heavy, blunt and undiscriminating instrument. It suggests mindless violence: reliance on smashing things rather than brains. It's a tool for splitting things apart and breaking them up. Reverting to the politics of the sledgehammer in the U.S.-Japanese alliance would massively and stupidly compound the damage done by the Toshiba affair. Rep. Bentley's sledgehammer act conveyed a clear message, but perhaps not the one that she and her supporting cast had in mind