To me it is the most wonderful moment in Mel Brooks's great comic "interview" with the 2,000-year-old man. What was the principal means of transportation back then, the old man is asked? To which he responds without hesitation: "Fear."

Fear -- the real kind, not the Naugahyde, you-almost-can't-tell-the-difference type nor the imitation whipped-cream substitute, but real fear, of the sort that makes your forehead clammy and causes grown men to quake in their boots -- stalked Washington in the wake of the stock-market plunge last week. As in the Mel Brooks scenario, it sent people running for their lives. But they didn't know where safety lay, and this made them more frightened yet.

I have seen this occur only a few times in the capital over the past 25 years. We manufacture, consume and do a brisk business in simulated, rhetorical fear. But real fear is rare. It is also, I would say, a potentially useful thing, so long as it does not degenerate into destructive panic. Right now in Washington we are in a way to find out which it will be.

The phenomenon began with an anxious, half-frantic but still half-amused titter on Bad Friday the 16th, turning into pure animal terror by midday on Black Monday. Monday's closing 500-point drop wiped the smirk off everybody's face. The kind of fear that was present by then reminded me of the isolated examples I had seen in the past: when the first news came in from Dallas that Jack Kennedy had been killed, for instance, or at various especially bleak and unexpected points in the energy crisis when it seemed as though the country might grind to an unceremonious halt. In political terms one sensed this also in the first faint Democratic survivor noises heard from the depths of the rubble after the Reagan Republican landslide of 1980. The common feature of these unlike episodes was that people in authority, who are accustomed to at least thinking they know (a) what has happened, (b) what further might happen and (c) what to do about it, know none of these things, but only that a crisis of huge dimension is upon them.

That was the situation on Black Monday here and has been fitfully ever since. People were rushing around to inform each other that they didn't know what was happening. This, in Washington, is the ultimate, self-abasing admission, the equivalent in other jurisdictions of pleading guilty to a capital crime; it is not undertaken lightly, but rather qualifies as a desperate plea for reassurance, being the power person's way of crying "Help!" What makes these moments so searing for government officials and their media satellites is that most of the time here we are playacting at fright or dealing in the remote, ersatz, paper kind, and so fully engaged in this kind of activity are we that it takes us some while and then comes as a terrific shock to learn that this is the real thing . . . this is it!

In fact some large part of routine life in this city is occupied with taking the edge off real fear, in remaking threats or stylizing them or evading them or burying them in documents. We tend to reprocess sharp reality so that it ends up as a blob of melted Velveeta. We have developed rituals for making assassination attempts seem almost normal; we have learned so outrageously to overstate prospective threats as to make their real dimensions seem harmless and trivial; this is, after all, a society, not just a capital, that dotes on disaster porn: burning high-rises, crashing express trains, population-devouring wild beasts and the rest of that cinematic hype. We exist, politically, as almost comical doomsayers, crying so much wolf so much of the time from both right and left that by now it is possible that no one any longer believes in the validity of any warning or any profession of fear: it is all understood to be play.

Surely there is no better example than our approach to nuclear weapons and the various gradations of danger that we face in our dealings with other countries that have them. Washington officials like to talk in this connection about "crisis management," a phrase about which there is something conceptually ludicrous, since any crisis that can readily be managed probably isn't that much of a crisis to begin with. They also like to talk about their own deep fears of nuclear war in a way that suggests they aren't afraid at all because the prospect is so abstract and academic to them. In their words you can hear how complacent they have become about war's remoteness and how the "balance of terror" and all the rest of that usage has become a vocabulary for employment in strategic crossword puzzles; the words have been cleansed of meaning. Our essential nuclear strategy may be based on the calibration of mutual fear, but the very word we use to convey this -- "deterrence" -- has acquired an almost comfy connotation. "Deterrence": it is good, right-minded, safe and gives off not the slightest feeling of the sheer horror on which it is based.

Until Black Monday the analogy with our economic condition was strong. Inveighing against the trade and budget deficits is our number-one hobby here. Warnings that the machine is out of kilter, that the prosperity is based on illusion and cut corners, that there will be a hideous day of reckoning -- all this comes with our morning coffee and is still filling the air as we drift off at night. Our politicians in the executive branch and on Capitol Hill have been doing the Chicken Little thing for the past six years, and so they, along with the public listening to them (or, by now, tuning them out, as the case may be) had long since ceased quite to believe their dire prophecies. George Shultz has spent much of his time in the last several years importuning journalists to try to explain the real danger of those deficits to their readers, but this struck people as a kind of eccentricity, I think . . . that is, until the market took its plunge.

The sentiment in so many places here was: "Oh, my God, it's really happening." People began to make noises as if they were now prepared to quit fooling around and hammer out the political arrangements required to take control of our economic fate. It was the old no-atheists-in-the-foxholes principle; you could hear the prayerful vows of passengers on a stricken airplane that they will never be bad again if they just are set down safely this time, only in a political-economic liturgy. True fright has its uses. If things don't get right too soon, and if they don't disintegrate into panic, you could begin to see some political guts and fiscal resolve in unaccustomed places in Washington.