HAVE WE HIT bottom yet? When Marion Barry was arrested at the Vista Hotel last January, there were people who thought, quite reasonably, that the images of the mayor of Washington in police custody represented a low for us all. But the video tape of the mayor's activities inside Room 727 of the Vista that night are far more appalling. That transfixing tape is a cultural atrocity film, gut-wrenching and terrible to watch.

There are some people who have responded to the tape with sympathy for Barry the man. That's easy to understand. To watch somebody being trapped in a sting operation can be disturbing, and the Vista tape has moments of such pathos that it invites dramatic identification with the sting's victim. Poor Barry, as some people have put it.

But that kind of reaction just confuses who has been victimizing whom all along. We are Barry's victims. To watch a man in whom the beleaguered black community has invested so much, for whom it has offered every excuse, stand with his hands against the wall, be told his arrest will be handled with "maximum" discretion, mutter obsessively and egotistically that he was "set up" by "that bitch," is to witness how thoroughly black fears and hopes have been misused and manipulated.

"When one sees it all out on TV, it's worse than we ever thought," says James Turner, past president of the African Heritage Studies Association and a professor at Cornell University. "You just have to say, 'Look at this. Do our children have to see this, does the mayor's child have to see this? Does Effi have to sit through this? Oh, Marion, oh, Lord.' It's very depressing."

The tape is more far disturbing than the recently published pictures of Sen. Edward Kennedy atop a young woman on a boat, or of Donna Rice seated on Gary Hart's knee, or the accounts of Richard Berendzen's obscene phone calls. Seeing the tape is a dizzying emotional low. The reason is history. There is so much background to the sting tape -- so many years of rumor and suspicion and denial from the mayor. And, finally, so many months of defiant assertions in which the mayor said he had nothing to do with drugs and complained to supporters anxious to believe him that he was being "lynched" by white prosecutors and the press.

"It is a community pain." said Milton Morris, director of research for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, the nation's leading black think tank. "The whole town is losing -- no matter what the legalities, no matter how bad a mayor he has been, this is a particularly distasteful way to solve the problem. The town is paying a high price for this in emotional division and pain."

"I understand the shock but I also think it is very real and people have to deal with reality," said Vernon Jordan, the former head of the National Urban League who is now a Washington lawyer. "The tape confirms the reality of what has happened. That's the shock -- the ugliness of it. At this point, to think this happened because he is black is a form of escapism. They would have done it to any public official because prosecutors and police, like the press, want to nail somebody and the bigger the fish the more interesting the game." Marion Barry is a very big fish, and catching him on film was emotional dynamite. Everyone in the region, everyone involved in politics -- and particularly black politics -- long ago formed their own views of Barry and his prosecutors. But the public had never actually seen the mayor as a drug user. No one had seen him stoop so low. No one had seen law enforcement agents crash in and catch the mayor like any small-time drug hustler.

I've long been critical of the mayor's administration of city government, particularly his disdain for delivering services to the poor. But that had nothing to do with the pain I felt at watching the tape. To my 10-year-old son, Marion Barry has always been the mayor and an important black man. Now he has seen that important man reduced to a character who lies to his people, cheats on his wife and smokes crack in hotel rooms. This hurts.

No one can be certain how the tape played to a jury that has heard testimony from several people that the mayor is predisposed to use drugs. The jury may feel uneasy about the use of sting operations, and question the credibility of former drug users who have testified about Barry's drug use. But outside the courtroom, even given those considerations, the tape seems vastly more lurid and powerful than advertised.

"It makes you feel low even if you don't live in Washington," said Louis Martin, the dean of black American politics, who was publisher of several black newspapers and served in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. "But race is not the only line drawn in society, and we can't let race polarize us to the point where criminal behavior becomes acceptable because of color."

And the sights and sounds of the sting tape invite psychological denial. It makes me, as a black person, feel weak and violated. It invites me to think the entire world is conspiring against us. It must be. Someone else must be to blame for this atrocity.

"You can't say this is not a terrible truth," said John Hope Franklin, the nation's preeminent black historian and professor of history at Duke University. "This is reality." Black people, says Franklin, have been able to maintain a sense of moral superiority through years of fighting racism in America. As a result, they have developed a hard-won sense of right and wrong. "We have to stand tall, hard as it may be, and say 'no excuses.' It's too bad, but that's it."

For many people in this town the tape is an indictment of themselves. Having the hard facts on display like a cheap soap opera shames them for having been around Barry and allowing this situation to fester for so long.

"I'm talking collective guilt," said Ethelbert Miller, the poet who is director of the African American Resource Center at Howard University. "Lots of people must have known Barry was using drugs. This is 1990 -- we know drug symptoms. People covered for him for years. Then, if all that is true, we all have to deal with our responsibility -- the conspiracy was in our own community. We are the conspirators. That's why it made sense for so many in the community to support Barry. But the tape ends that."

"The society that produced Marion Barry is sick," said the Rev. Joseph Lowery, the head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and a leading civil rights activist. "Every institution, every individual has to take a look at what is happening to us. The lack of inner strength and dignity leads us to resort to this behavior."

"The middle class today have so much emptiness in their souls," Lowery added. "There's another sickness of despair and poverty that would lead people in the ghetto to drugs, but what happened to Marion Barry is something else, a sad, gloomy picture of a sick man, a sick society. . . . His sickness doesn't represent black people -- it is the sickness of one man." But Barry is the mayor and "we can't turn away and say it isn't true," said Lowery.

Ultimately, the power of the tape lies in its undeniability. After all the debates about race and politics and press, the tape demands that all involved shed their opinions and watch. And when you watch, there is the simple undeniable image of the mayor picking up the pipe, lighting the crack and smoking it.

"When it came on we were having dinner," said Miller, the Howard University poet. "I was at a loss in terms of how to explain this to the kids. Do you let them watch. My 8-year-old wanted to know if this was the sex part. . . . Barry created such a lifestyle with women and so forth, and now's there's a window to look through. We didn't have that before. It's all on public view and forces each one of us to watch. It is a horror."

"If I was faced with the choice of a few months in jail and letting that tape get into the public, I would have taken the time," said Morris of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. "Why not kill it off and leave an element of ambiguity. Let those who believe in you keep their position. Each person's freedom is valuable, and Marion may have wanted some vindication. But he really made the city -- and the black community in particular -- pay for this."

Barry's decision to have the tape played may have been a judgment by the mayor and his attorney, R. Kenneth Mundy, that the tape will generate sympathy for Barry. Rasheeda Moore, who asked Barry to come up to her hotel room where the videotapes were running, had to supply the mayor with the crack. Such facts may convince at least one juror that the government went too far in organizing the sting. Maybe that's what will happen; it seems to be Barry's only chance to avoid jail. He is looking for a way out, and in his desperation has lost sight of everyone else, everything else. We are watching Barry in embarassing moments on the tape because Barry is now making completely self-serving, desperate decisions. Barry appears to be a man willing to sacrifice everything -- the community, his personal stature, even his wife and son -- in a dire attempt to save himself. That drama adds to the awful power of the tape as well.

"Whites may well be conspiring against us, but when we are able to win and hold public office -- after much struggle -- and lead a public life, we have to commmit ourselves to operate under certain rules," said Duke's John Hope Franklin.

"Those rules mean that we have to walk at a higher level, we do indeed have to walk a straighter and narrower path," said Franklin. "Maybe we ought to have the constitutional right to walk the same path, but we have to hold to a higher standard. That's just the reality today and for the future."

"I would expect a black office holder to be conscious of necessity to set an even higher standard," said former United Nations ambassador Donald McHenry, now a professor at Georgetown. "That's the way the world is and that is the way the world is going to be for some time."

Barry, however, obviously decided some time ago that he did not have to live by the higher standards placed on black officials. He thought he could use black citizens to protect him and allow him to flaunt the law in a way that would have landed even white officials in jail. And now that he is seen in moments of desperation on the videotape, the deep irony for the black community is that having tried to make excuses for Barry, having ignored his sins in the name of supporting black leadership, much of Barry's wrongdoing may be unfairly attached to black people generally because of Barry's status as a prominent black American leader.

"An important point here is that black people are making formidable political strides," said Morris of the Joint Center. "We have just elected a governor. We have mayors in several major cities, some for the first time. There is a black man entering a tough senatorial race in North Carolina, and there is a black nominee for governor in South Carolina. It seems to me we have the signs of a major breakout. And now the Barry tape, to me, casts a gut-wrenching pall on strides forward we are making as a people. . . . Some people are worried about him and his wife. I am too. But there are other important considerations involved for all black America."

Nothing seems to be beneath the mayor's dignity. He embarasses Nelson Mandela by showing up uninvited at Mandela's speech at the Convention Center. He embraces Louis Farrakhan, who only a few months ago denounced Barry as a degenerate. He grabs onto George Stallings, a man who has failed to answer charges of stealing money from his church and sexually abusing children.

And by pursuing a defense that seems to depend on such theatrics of racial polarization, Barry virtually ensures that, whatever verdict the jury reaches, the city will suffer continued racial animosity.

In the 1950s, another desperate politician, Sen. Joseph McCarthy, was similarly unconcerned about larger consequences in his pursuit of self-vindication. He was eventually mortally wounded by a single question asked by a lawyer during televised hearings. "Have you no sense of decency, sir?" asked the lawyer. "At long last, have you left no sense of decency?"

What about you, Mr. Mayor?

Juan Williams writes frequently on politics for Outlook.