BOSTON -- The cop and the rap singer went on the air together last Wednesday. It's the American way. One minute you're arresting a guy, and the next minute you're in the green room with him. One day he's putting cuffs on you, the next day he's your co-guest.

When the lights went on at ''Geraldo,'' the Florida sheriff, Nick Navarro, and the leader of 2 Live Crew, Luther Campbell, played their parts like polished performers assigned the role of enemies. Navarro portrayed himself as lawman and Campbell as obscene lawbreaker. Campbell cast himself as the rap singer and Navarro as ''communist and racist.''

Then the two parted company and Campbell went on to ''Donahue'' and then to ''Live at Five.'' Another opening, another show. That's entertainment.

The scene wasn't much more heartening in Congress, where the players are feeling the dramatic heat of flag burning. Those who were for and against a constitutional amendment to ban the desecration of the flag were worrying about the reviews. Some, like Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey, imagined bleakly how they would look: ''Bob Kerrey votes for gun control, and he won't vote to protect the flag. It's a great 30-second spot.''

These days, it seems every issue becomes instant theater. Every advocate worries about how his act will play. Every conflict becomes a Punch and Judy show. Are you in favor of Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs? Are you against censors?

In public, people swing beliefs at each other like fists. The audience is expected to identify a hero and a villain. Which do you prefer: the First Amendment or pornography, the Bill of Rights or the flag, freedom of speech or obscenity?

What is so appalling about these one-acts is that they lead the audience to assume that every issue must be equally polarized. Like guests on a talk show, we either have to buy ''Me So Horny'' or ban it. We must favor the flag or the flag burners. We have to choose between license and crackdown. Now.

Indeed at the ends of the American spectrum there are people who can only scream at each other across a stage. Americans do feel differently about symbols and speech.

Over the years, the passion to crack down on dissent or on speech has come from those who believe there's a natural human drift down to the lowest common denominator of behavior. Unchecked, they say, the human heart of darkness grows.

Those who have defended free speech have put their faith in reason, persuasion, what was once called enlightenment. In the free marketplace of ideas, they wager, the 2 Live Crew will lose and the flag burners will simmer down.

Over the course of American history, the value of free speech has outlasted both its abusers and attackers. Over time, the Bill of Rights has been shielded from those who want to express their outrage by repressing outrageousness. But I wonder if these days we have the time.

Out of the limelight, most Americans are not as certain as talk-show guests nor as polarized as attack ads. There are First Amendment absolutists who would like to throttle Andrew Dice Clay and be there when Luther Campbell's daughter asks him to explain his work. There are people who neither want a Mapplethorpe on their wall nor want to dine with his censors.

But today public debate has been pared down to its speed-racing form, a sleek and simplistic shape. Even the Senate now pushes for an amendment with the urgency of a television host trying to wrap things up before the political commercial break.

When asked about the flag amendment, Arkansas Sen. Dale Bumpers said, ''I belong to the wait-just-a-minute club.'' It's a club with a shrinking membership.

I don't think we need to imprison a rap singer to express our abhorrence of sexual assault songs. Like profanity on ''Geraldo,'' 2 Live Crew is a bleep in time. Nor do I think we need to singe the Constitution to punish the few who torch a symbol. Flag burning isn't even a fad.

How do you defend a 200-year-old principle in the era of the 30-second spot? How do you wait a minute, and listen a while, in the passionate and polarizing ethic of the moment?

The Bill of Rights is on the political entertainment schedule now. And it appears, the producers are only worried about today's show.