This year was barely two hours old when a man was fatally stabbed in the Times Square subway station.

In the following weeks, a subway change booth operator was fatally stabbed. Two other booth operators were incinerated when youths poured a flammable liquid into their booth and then tossed in a match, a vagrant "shopping bag woman" was raped and strangled, another vagrant man was set on fire, a man was thrown in front of an on-coming train, and, most recently, a man had his throat slashed fatally by a derelict.

All of this violence took place in New York's subway system. On the first day of spring, the subway homicide figure is but one short of last year's total. Subway felonies were up 21 percent in January over a year before; robberies alone jumped 83 percent.

The timing of the crimes couldn't have been worse for Mayor Edward Koch, who recently began a campaign to woo the Democratic National Convention to his city in 1980.

New York's two tabloids, The Daily News and the New York Post, splashed frequent reports of subway assaults across their front pages in banner headlines. The volume of subway passengers was dropping. Political survival dictated that Koch make a show of force, and on Monday night that's exactly what he did.

In the media-conscious fashion which has been his trademark, Koch, flanked by bodyguards, descended into the IRT line to kick off a $10 million attack on the subway violence the level of which, a Washington Post survey indicates, is not even approached by any other city with a subway in the United States or Canada.

Koch basically took a leaf from the book of former mayor Robert Wagner, who responded in 1965 to similar calls for increased subway security by beefing up the uniformed police presence on the trains and in the stations at night.

Wagner's response was largely successful until the transit police force was cut from its level of 3,600 during the city's fiscal crisis in 1975. It now has about 2,900 police officers.

In a move that will cost the city about$7 million in overtime this year alone, Koch ordered the indefinite deplyment of about 900 uniformed officers to patrol nearly all of the 459 stations and all of the 550 trains along the 230-mile subway system between late afternoon and 2 a.m. This represents an increase of about 400 uniformed personnel during those hours. About 100 of them are regular city police officers.

"I believe, heart and soul, that the subways are now a safer place," Koch concluded.

"Yes, I suppose I do feel safer now," conceded one elderly woman who appeared almost smothered by two policemen in one subway car.

But not everyone supported Koch's tactics.

"This is a lot of bull----," said one transit policeman. "So you're safe until 2 a.m. The criminal waits until 3 a.m. Big deal."

"This is just going to drive the criminal up to the streets or to the daytime," added another. "God help the people in the morning now. [The criminals] have to make a living just like you and me. They'll just move into the morning rush hours."

"Remember, criminals can always adjust easier than we can," concluded a third.

Many of the rank-and-file transit police feel that it was a mistake to put all of the approximately 500 plainclothes officers in the force back into uniform to calm the public.

"They're the ones who make the collars," explained one officer. "This whole thing could set us back 10 years."

"Sure, you need plainclothes personnel down there. We constantly look for the right mix of uniformed and plainclothes," conceded Edward Silverfarb, a spokesman for the Transit Authority. "Right now, the emphasis must be on deterrence."

In concentrating on deterrence, Koch acknowledges that the problem he confronts is one of public perception, accurate or not, said Silverfarb.Statistically, the odds of being a crime victim in the New York subways are substantially less than in the New York streets.

"I think that the mayor is right when he says that whether or not crime is up -- and it is up to some degree -- the public fears have to be dealt with," he said. "It's very important to allay those fears now."

But it is the near-universal feeling among city officials and police that the local news media have exaggerated the subway dangers and, to a degree, helped cause the expensive city response.

"The press here has created a crime wave in the minds of people far out of proportion to the reality," one city official said. "It has stimulated the power of suggestion. When you ride on the subway these days, you think of everyone you see as a potential criminal."

"That's like [Gen. William] Westmoreland saying that he'd have won Vietnam if the press hadn't been there," countered John Van Dorn, managing editor of the New York Post. "The statistics support us. I think that it is a very positive thing to report this subway crime as fully and accurately as possible."

Ask 10 New Yorkers to define "crime wave" and you'll get 10 different answers. The recent subway violence ultimately became a political issue with a life of its own that required a political response from Koch. Tactical questions aside, that is what he gave the city in the form of the increased police presence.

And like all political responses, it must withstand the scrutiny of the voters -- and $10 million of it.