A PENTAGON-appointed panel, the defense secretary and the president, pronouncing on the volatile Vieques issue, urge the United States and Puerto Rico to continue working to serve American military readiness on the one hand and local safety, economic and environmental considerations on the other. This flows from the death of a civilian guard last April at the valuable live-fire training ground on Vieques, a satellite island a few miles off Puerto Rico at whose other end 9,000 American citizens live.

Well, yes: dialogue, compromise, work it out. But the mismatch is painful. The U.S. government has the power, the Puerto Ricans are left to protest. A memorandum of understanding in 1983 -- far from the first such effort -- was meant to address Vieques's neglected concerns. But, concedes the Pentagon panel, too little was done both in preparing fleetworthy live-fire training alternatives and in showing respect to Vieques. This is how the April accident came to stir major continuing demonstrations, including live-ins right in the firing range. The issue has generated intense nationalistic passion in Puerto Rico, and a feeling of betrayal and no-confidence reigns.

Chairing a Vieques hearing Tuesday, Sen. John Warner said that, doing their patriotic duty, his own constituents in Quantico sit closer to an active live-fire range than do residents of Vieques. But the senator failed to note that his constituents command a powerful alternative device to ensure their safety. They have a full role in the American political system; they have Sen. John Warner. By contrast, the Americans who live in Vieques cling to the fringe of the American system. They have no voting or Senate representation. They lack a political status -- statehood or independence -- that would give them a fair chance to make their case.

The competing requirements of the American military and the people of Vieques do need to be worked on harder. But the root problem of modernizing a colonial connection now entering its second century remains to be effectively addressed.