The crime of our times is complex. It is a crime in which the actors struggle to commandeer all the mechanisms of mass communications and all the people, from Presidents to lowliest citizens, become particpants.

All are pawns, all seem almost powerless in the face of the latest in the series of acts of terrorism.

That's what was being hammered home once again yesterday in Washington.

In an earlier time, the classic crime was all in the family, when Cain slew Abel. Classic in its simplicity: passion, jealousy, rage, revenge. What we might call today, in these inelegant times, "a one on one."

But with increasing frequency we have witnessed crimes of terror around the world. The hooded terrorists in Munich, the cowering hostages in Uganda, the strange names of the terrorists groups from the Symbionese Liberation Army to the Hanafi - all are part of the same story. By now, the techniques are disturbingly familiar: the seizure of hostages, the strident demands. the anugished hours of waiting, the often tragic denouement. And each time the drama is played out, live and in color, for all to experience.

Yesterday's events followed the current script. They thrust foward again the persistent, virtually unanswerable question: Why?

Why, on a balmy, sunny, benign day following the harshest winter in history, did the violence burst forth so suddenly and shockingly? Why have so many similar events been occuring so often recently? What is the proper course of officials, including presidents, to follow? To what extent do television and films and newspapers contribute to the phenomenon?

Consider the web that ensnared both President Carter and the public in only a few hours yesterday. The President was half-way through his news conference when he was asked a question about a gunman holding a hostage in Ohio. Was he concerned that by agreeing to talk to the gunman he might set a precedent? Yes, he was, the President quite properly said. He had weighed the factors, appreciated the dilemmas, and made his decision. He knew "it is perhaps a dangerous precedent to establish."

What he did not know was that that episode would be instantly overtaken by even grimmer scences a few blocks from the White Hosuse.

President Carter was caught in one of the cruelest dilemmas facing leaders in these days of mass violence and mad cases of captors and hostages. Publicity is the goal of most hostage takers, and to be recognized by a President is a prime success. Yet human lives are at stake, and a lack of response could result in death.

A leading Washington psychiatrist believes a major element in the rash of hostage takers lies in the media attention they receive. The more coverage; the more the increase in the other cases, suggests Dr. Joseph Novello of the Psychiatric Institute of Washington.

Novello is concerned that the President's words yesterday conceivably could trigger further incidents.

"I shuddered when I heard him say he was going to talk to that fellow in Cleveland," he said.

"I don't have all the information the President had and he may have saved that policeman's life - but on the national and international level it could be an open invitation," Novello said late yesterday afternoon. "I think it necessary that he make an announcement immediately that he is not going to deal with any terrorist group or individual hostage taker. It sets a dangerous precedent. He's going to spend a lot of time on the telephone with terrorists unless he corrects his position."

The other side of that equation deals directly with the press. Since the wave of organized terrorist activities caught the world's attention, most notably at Munich during the 1972 Olympics, the techniques have been refined and perfected. They fall into clearly definable patterns.

An airplane is hijacked and demands issued, a building is seized and the hostages are displayed, even interviewed. A communisity and a country, and at times the entire world become caught up in the drama.

But common techniques aside, a critical difference exists between the international terrorists and those we are now facing more and more at home. In the United States individual hostage takers seldom gain anything except momentary publicity. They do not go free.

In Cleveland, that gunman who wanted to speak to the President released his hostage with a shotgun wired to his neck. At the end, he freed the hostage and, despite promises of anmesty was immediately arrested.

That is the common pattern. Not so for overseas terroists. Some 80 per cent of them go free, our State Department estimates. They are given asylum in friendly countries, and that is that. The recent case in France where the officials released a prime suspect in the Munich murders is an example.

Publicity crosses the oceans, and unites both camps of terrorists at home and abroad. Both sides need to command the attention of the media and thereby the public.

In these turbulent days, an army of experts has grown up around the question of violence in America.

It is being studied and debated constantly. A steady flow of commission reports and dissertations gathers dust on library shelves. But inevitably the questions turn inward. Mass violence is the theme of the mass media. Patty Hearst spawns a television drama - or did the television drama spawn Patty Hearst's drama? To what extent does life imitate art, and art influence life?

There are those who believe that violence on television sets the stage for terror in these times. Patrick Mulaney, of the EBI-s behavioral science unit, recalled a television show in which youths set a man on fire. The exact incident was repeated by youths in Massachusetts.

"Twenty years ago," he said "none would have thought killing someone or taking hostage was a viable action for whatever was bothering you. But people see that 'reality' every night in TV dramas."

Whatever the explanations or theories, on one yet has an acceptable answer on dealing with the rise of terror. Prof. Marvin Wolfgang, of the University of Pennsylvania, a nationally known criminoligist, said one thing should be kept in mind.

Publicity aside, the goal of the terrorists is simple, he said. "They want to instigate fear."

That they have accomplished. And they have acccomplished something else. Once again they have brought into question perhaps the most difficult of the democratic dilemmas - how to preserve individual freedom and liberty and yet at the same time maintain collective security amid the rising spector of violent terrorism.

Up to now, the reaction has been to add layer after layer of security onto American life. We submit to searches at airports, we show our passes at offices, we permit checks of a personal nature in a myriad of ways unknown in the past. As yesterday's events demonstrated anew many of these provide only a facade.

Now, at the least, one thing is certain. The protective cordon buildings, our public and private - and around our lives - will grow tighter. It's one of the unhappy prices of citizenship in the '70s, it seems.