TWO YEARS ago, writing on this page about the murders in our city, I tried to explain what I called a "new kind of terror, pain and confusion." Today I am wondering this: Has Washington become a Beirut, a place wholly accustomed to death and desensitized to violence? Have we crossed a critical line that separates a law-abiding society from a society in which life is anarchic, brutal and short?

When I put this question to Harvard psychiatrist Dr. Alvin Poussaint, he replied, "I don't think anyone knows where the line is. We know something's happened. In the past five years, we've come to feel that anything goes. There is an immunity to violence and an acceptance of it by the perpetrators as a legitimate way to deal with things. The perpetrators use violence as a tool to negotiate the environment."

In fact, there have been so many murders here this year that most people take little more than momentary notice of the grim statistics. The daily routine of violence requires a special accommodation for those who live in neighborhoods where it is commonplace. "You get used to the killing," said one woman, as she explained to me her strategy for survival. She lives around the corner from a drug-infested street where the police often carry out searches of men as they lie straddled on the pavement.

When asked if there is anything that shocks her, she replied, "I did get shocked one night when two boys came down the street shooting wildly. I dove under the counter at the grocery store. When something like that actually happens you get shaken, but you have the capacity to get used to anything so long as it happens with a lot of routine."

But even in our collective numbness and apparent apathy, some of these murders arouse our worst fears, our sense of vulnerability, and provoke our strongest moral outrage. Three of them occurred this month: Clarene Collier-Wilson, 27, was murdered by a knife-wielding man in the Adams-Morgan neighborhood as she carried her 3-year-old daughter and held the hand of her 10-year-old daughter. James "Jay" Bias, 21, was shot to death, allegedly by a man who accused him of flirting with his wife. Frank Gibson, manager of a Tenleytown clothing store, was gunned down in an apparent robbery attempt. A month earlier, attorney John Winston was shot and killed outside his Chevy Chase Circle townhouse. The latter two murders, in predominantly white Ward 3, were a reminder that there is no sanctuary from the violence. These murders touched us so deeply not only because of their depravity, but because they told us of our own seeming helplessness. How, we wondered, could anyone put a knife through the heart of a woman carrying a child? Could we be next?

The violence, to be sure, is not confined to our metropolitan area. Homicide rates for New York City and Atlanta also have exceeded last year's; young men are shooting each other gangland style in broad daylight. "There's a lot of retaliation going on right now," a Washington detective told me. "Money is tight. They're {drug dealers} robbing each other and getting killed between robberies. The idea is, 'If you kill my friend, I'll kill yours.' And then they know how the system works. They know the court system will give them a low bond. They'll be out of jail quickly."

Drug dealers have taken control of once-stable neighborhoods. Consequently, the violence has changed the way many live. "A lot of people do not allow their kids to go outside to play anymore," said the detective. They have retreated to the fragile security of their homes, while the streets have been taken over by dangerous young men.

In high-risk neighborhoods, people's homes have become their jails, as they venture out only when absolutely necessary. In a conversation with several fifth graders, one stated emphatically, "I don't go outside." But he also recounted, "I heard somebody get shot; I was walking past and I saw all this blood coming out." Another told me, "I get scared walking home at night. I know a couple of people around my way who got shot in the leg and arm." And one boy told me he was afraid of being shot when he became a teenager.

It has become a society in which fisticuffs are as outmoded as the cavalry horse. As one youth told me several years ago, "It's easier to shoot it out and get it over with rather than spend the whole night fighting." Many in this generation have not been taught to use verbal skills, such as negotiation, to solve problems. The availability of weapons continues to raise the stakes for all-out warfare. A 14-year-old junior high school student told me, "We were over to a girlfriend's house. We saw a boy get shot in the leg. It made me sad."

Violence, Poussaint said, "is one of the strategies, along with other forms of anti-social behavior, they take for granted on a day-to-day basis. So it's live fast, die young and have a good-looking corpse."

These distortions often originate from, and are reinforced by, various stimuli. Consider simply the television and film industry. Not only are films getting more violent, but a growing number of black actors are cast as the leads in them. Danny Glover's roles in "Lethal Weapon" and "Predator II" and Eddie Murphy's roles in "Harlem Nights" and "Another 48 Hours" are good examples. A lot of youths see these films; they must get the message that this is reality, or at least a large slice of it.

Once the perpetrators of crime were poor; they were either older teenagers or adults, and they came from troubled families. That pattern has shifted. According to the D.C. detective I interviewed, "Some come from good homes, even upper-class homes as well. Some are well-educated. I recently dealt with a murderer who was a college graduate."

Perhaps some aspects of the problem cut across racial and class boundaries and predispose some individuals more than others to be drawn into this web. Poussaint addresses the issue this way. "This generation of youth is less empathic toward people. Some of the old rules such as 'do not hit elderly women' aren't functioning anymore. Now anything goes."

Authorities, meanwhile, say that some parents tacitly approve the involvement of their children in the drug trade; they ignore the new-found riches, the jewelry and cars. When I asked the D.C. detective if the parents seemed surprised to learn their sons have been arrested, injured or killed as a result of drug involvement, he replied, "They always appear surprised. Most should know something is wrong when the kids do not come home until 3 a.m. The parents pretend they don't know, but they do.

"About 75 percent of the parents are really sorry when they find out their kids have gotten killed. Another 25 percent see it as a case of the money going down the drain. Some will call the police and want to know where their son's $100 tennis shoes are. They're more concerned with the kid's property -- the car, tennis shoes, how much money he had in his wallet. They say they didn't know about their kid's involvement with drugs, but you find out they did when you look at their bank account." When you look at this generation of young people, you realize their parents were shut out of the "second reconstruction" -- the fruits of the civil-rights struggle. If they were poor, they had little of the social "safety net" to offer their children.

Starting with the Nixon administration, funds have shifted away from funding poor urban comunities; the federal government, by drastically cutting back funds for social programs, effectively began to abandon these communities.

Ironically, many large cities are now run by black mayors, policymakers and service providers. But the presence of black leadership alone cannot by itself alleviate the problems of bad schools, poor housing and jobs without a future. "Everyone is angry with the state, but blacks are running the programs of the state," said Walter Stafford, a professor of urban policy at New York University. "The black community hasn't expanded the economic base to incorporate the youth. Everyone is saying 'cut the local government payroll. Get rid of the surplus workers,' but no one is saying what we should do with these kids."

No one knows what to do about a generation of latch-key children -- kids who have grown up without the heavy investment of parental involvement so many of us received. A number of parents are also extremely young themselves -- some had their children as teenagers and have not had enough experience to know how to raise their children. Others are simply neglectful.

Eleanor Cox, director of a program for at-risk youths in Washington, said, "The kids feel that as far as the adults are concerned, they are just there. They don't sit and talk with them, laugh with them. It's more a matter of criticizing them where they're pointing out the kids' faults, and telling them what to do without any interaction with them."

Cox recounted this recent incident: "I saw a baby crawling out onto the sidewalk, going into 15th Street Northwest, and I didn't know whom he belonged to. A 2-year-old boy ran into the house and left this infant on the sidewalk! The little baby was trying to get up the walk. I picked him up and took him into the hallway of the building."

No doubt this was unusual, but how can such a thing happen even once? How can such a child grow up to be a normal human being? Whose responsibility is it to make sure this infant has the appropriate level of care?

I certainly endorse the idea that those who inflict harm on others should be punished. But it is important for us to understand and acknowledge the roots of the anger now unleashed upon society. You don't have to be a bleeding heart to undertand how serious it is that a lot of young people never formed primary relationships with other human beings during their early years. Had they done so, they wouldn't be able to kill, at least not so easily. "Some kill and go on out to a party at a club, or they go home and go to sleep," the detective told me. "When it's time to go to court, they show remorse."

Dr. Cuthbert Simpkins, a surgeon at D.C. General Hospital, has treated many gunshot victims. When I asked him what should be done, he said, "They are approachable when they come into the hospital. They really didn't realize their actions would bring them to this. You can talk to them about their lifestyle. They've got a tube in the nose; they have a hole in their stomach. They're in pain and they're afraid they're going to die. You can get them to reflect on their lives."

Simpkins has seen drug dealers express humility. He has seen the toughest of them cry. But the toll is awful, he said. "It gets to be really sad. As an inquisitive person, I want to get to the bottom of this problem. I'm tired of holding a chest together. I'm tired of holding an aorta together with my hands. I'm tired of closing up wounds inflicted by trauma."

All of us, on some level, have been affected by the horrifying escalation of violence. Eleanor Cox says that even the rules of robbery have escalated; she described an incident when, after the perpetrators took the victim's jewelry, they stabbed her in the stomach.

In my case, Clarene Collier-Wilson's death touched me in a deep and personal way. When I moved to Washington in the early '70s, I lived in the building where she lived. I still have friends there.

The night following Collier-Wilson's murder, I went to pay my respects to her family. As I parked, I saw a group of people I've known in the neighborhood for years nail a sign to the tree, admonishing all who read it not to allow her death to be in vain. Candles were lit and flowers were brought to this modern-day urban shrine, as Washingtonians gathered and tried to make sense of what had happened. As I stood looking at the flickering candles, a woman drove up and shouted from her car, to no one in particular, "I don't live in this neighborhood. But I had to come over here to see where this murder took place."

Then she began to scream, repeatedly, "When is this violence going to stop? When is it going to stop?" We know that if the devastation doesn't stop, we will, as a community, have crossed the line. We know that if the killings in the past represented a disorder and deviation from the norm, today's violence is rapidly being accepted as the way large numbers of people relate to each other. Normalcy is being turned inside out and there are fewer challenges to this distorted way of behaving.

Still, we must not forget the other side. In many neighborhoods, citizens have organized to take back their communities; if those most affected have become numbed, they have not stopped caring.

We must also remember the young African-American men and women in this nation -- the great majority -- who are thoughtful, law-abiding and serious. A case in point: M. Kasim Reed, an international business major at Howard University who currently serves as the undergraduate representative on Howard's Board of Trustees.

Recently, Reed was on the "MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour" to discuss how his generation feels about the military build-up in the Persian Gulf. When the program ended, friends called me to ask about this "clear-thinking, erudite, charismatic young man," as they described him. A veteran journalist friend called him "truly special"; another said, "We can surely expect great things from him in the future. He will be one of the new breed of leaders in the African-American community."

Reed is, indeed, a special person, but there are tens of thousands of others very much like him, on and off campuses across the nation. (He is featured in the November issue of Black Enterprise magazine with two fellow entrepreneurs at Howard.) But why are these young blacks virtually invisible? Why do we hear so little about them and their views on international, political and economic issues, while we are inundated with news about the latest body count of youths involved in the drug market?

Surely, a bridge can be made between the two sides of this generation. It is, after all, Reed and his peers who will inherit the burden of the terrible present.