Jimmy Carter's hoped-for Christmas-season SALT agreement foundered -- at least in part -- on something called "telemetry encryption." I thought: how fitting. In fact, it's not just the Soviet missile test results, but the whole damned debate that's been "encrypted" -- put into a code that practically nobody can understand or stay with more than five minutes without undergoing acute vertigo. Does SALT really need to be all that indecipherable? Should you really feel as intimidated by it as you do? Speaking as one who has had to poke around in its obscure corners for many years now, I am certain that the answer to both questions is no.

This is worth thinking about as we head into a national argument over the deal Jimmy Carter is trying to cut with the Russians to limit each side's capacity (and incentive) to blow the other permanently out of bed some night in a hideous, unprecedentedly gory way. Yes, I know that is a flip, crude and thoroughly unscientific characterization of the result everyone is trying to avoid, both those who favor and those who fear a SALT deal. It is intellectually vulgar. And yet it remains a better, more practical guide to what we are talking about than the common clinical alternatives -- and that is the point. All that bloodless, formulaic talk about "scenarios" and "impact" and "soft targets" and "exchanges" and "GLCM" and "RVs" and the rest is a way of avoiding the implications of the subject, not of expressing them.

Don't get me wrong. I am aware that there are surpassingly difficult technological and scientific questions involved, areas accessible only to the many-times-over Ph.D.'d. And I also realize that the arcane character of it all is heightened by the need to keep many things secret, as well as by the Soviets' need to do the same. But that doesn't account for the swamp of jargon into which we are invariably led whenever these matters come up. And when you consider that on a variety of other issues -- economic, monetary, energy-related, medical and environmental, to mention just a few -- people are anything but reluctant to leap in, despite a vast realm of technical information they don't understand, you have to concede that something special is going on here.

I think it is nothing more complicated than use of a mechanism we regularly employ for talking about things without thinking about them or taking responsibility for what we are actually saying. This tends to begin, in my observation, with those at the center of the action and then to be transmitted to and incorporated by the rest of us. The Vietnamese war with its bombing raids called "protective reaction" and so forth provided stunning examples. The new and as yet unhardened young reporter on the police beat will likewise distance himself from the unbearable reality by lapsing into clinicalese: Did you say that was twelve or thirteen stab wounds? Are you calling that the abdomen or the chest?

Just so, all the learned talk, for instance, about "RVs." You will be hearing plenty about RVs in the days to come. What is an RV, anyway? I will decode it, here and now: an RV means a re-entry vehicle. A re-entry vehicle is a warhead. A warhead means... a bomb. An RV, in fact, is basically just a bomb that has taken a missile ride in space and re-enters the Earth's atmosphere to do its job. If you should get hit on the head by an RV you will be powerfully under the impression that you have been hit on the head by a bomb.

The specialist will already be reaching for his pen and paper and stamps: Doesn't that ignorant woman know there are some distinctions between the vehicle and its contents? Well, she does. But these -- I insist on it -- only fuddle people and without benefit. The heavy, semi-professional gloss laid over the discussion adds nothing to the public's essential understanding, but does distract and confuse and cow people so that they default on their proper participating role in these important arguments. Because it all seems so formidable and esoteric, large parts of the otherwise thinking political public have always fallen back on passionate, if not hysterical responses -- the whole range of despairing, false-alternative, Red-versus-dead arguments.

To my mind, the demystification of the language of arms control is the requisite first step toward creating a reasonable and useful debate. But more than the jargon needs to be changed. There is a stubbornly held and wrongheaded idea around that the subject matter itself -- the very issues and choices and questions being resolved -- is, somehow, of a scientific nature. But at bottom these issues and choices and questions are not primarilly scientific or technological in nature, but rather political, diplomatic and economic. When someone who is for or against a particular arms-control or general-weapons decision tells you that the Soviets could or couldn't circumvent and/or cheat on it, he is not making a laboratory calculation. He is making a number of assumptions that have much less to do with physics or chemistry than with questions of what the Russians would spend and risk and figure was going on in some given military or diplomatic circumstance.

The argument about the Soviet Backfire bomber is less about what that bomber can do than about what the Soviets intend it to do -- and whether or not we should count it in any agreement as a heavy bomber. The argument about cruise missiles is, likewise, not about their technical characteristics, but rather about whether we are exploiting their enormous potential prudently and whether we are signing away too much in relation to them. This particular issue, in fact, turns in many quarters on a question about Carter's capacity to manage the prospective complications of the SALT II agreement consistently and well.

And few question the prognostications that our land-based missiles will have become vulnerable to attack within five years or so, even though such an attack is unlikely. The argument concerns what kind of measures can be taken to defuse the danger created by such a situation. And these, in turn, go back to the very heart of the arms-control issue: how each side can protect its arsenal in a way that will deter the other from attack or even from nuclear pushing and shoving, and in a way that is -- as much as these things can be -- mutually reassuring. Science is an important calculation here. But politics -- the character and intentions and weaknesses and strengths of the affected people and institutions -- is, profoundly, what it is all about. You are not too dumb or too limited or too little educated to take an intelligent part in the discussion. But you may be too intimidated or too shy. One of the things worth demanding of our politicians this year is that they discuss this vital range of questions in comprehensible and relevant terms. It might teach them something, too.