From the outset, the "old" and the "new" have been mixed up in the Iranian affair in an absolutely disorienting way.This was nowhere better expressed than in Mike Wallace's "60 Minutes" interview with the ayatollah and the commercial static it prompted. There he was -- pure 7th-century man. And yet we were to learn that there had been a terrible ruckus over which network got what and that somehow the holy man of Qom had understood the elaborately murderous relationships among CBS, NBC and ABC (does he study the rating?) and had taken the exigencies of their competition into account. In the end, there had been a little something for each.

This play back and forth in time is important to understand. Many Americans, staring in disbelief at the breakdown of diplomatic ritual and civility and relating it to the rise of terrorism and mob policy, seem to think they are in the presence of something revolutionary -- something that is frightening precisely because it is unmeasured, unfamiliar, "new". But the truth is that when you step behind all the imagery and message-sending and related stage play, you find that you are in the presence of habits and techniques that are very, very old. We are witnessing a reversion, as distinct from a revolutin. And to some extent, of necessity, we are participating in it. Hostages, siege warfare, tribalism -- it is all there.

At the State Department and among the consultancies to government, a great deal of work has been done on the psychology of these various disturbances. We know more than we did just a few years about the byways of the terrorist mind. And the new lore has been helpful in knowing how to approach the people who committ these acts and what is likely to calm them down and what may set them off. There has been considerable work done, with benefit of 20th-century psycholgical insights, on mobism, mob-think and the mentality of the mob in general. But what is novel is the science, not the phenomena themselves that are the objects of this baleful study.

"Friends, Romans, countrymen . . ." -- Marc Anthony knew as much as the ayatollah does about how you get the mob inflamed on your side, and Shakespeare understood how the Romans used the mob. These seething, lunging masses of humanity are an ancient form of weapon, contemporaneous with the spear, the crossbow and now, as it seems, the MIRV. Leaders unleash them and sometimes pretend they are not their leaders but their helpless pawns. Sometimes it turns out that they do lose control.

Siege warfare and the taking of hostages are of equally ancient lineage, of course. There is a wonderfully sentimental idea around that warfare used to be -- somehow -- more decent and honorable (dare one say fun? ) than it is now and that combatants were splendid figures in armor or operetta garb doing harm only to one another as consenting adults will. The gore of innocents, however, is toreential in history, and there didn't used to be all that much fuss made about it. The besieged city was intended to surrender when conditions within it had reduced the general population to a pestilence- and disease-ridden remnant.(Some armies used to catapult their own dead and decomposing soldiers over the walls and into the besieged city to hasten this result.) Populations and leaders were regularly taken for ransom.

So this is what we are headed back to , or at least what it looks to be at the moment, and the disintegration of that veneer of modern practices and assumptions we had thought went somewhat deeper is occurring in the name of a kind of worldwide return to tribalism. Courtesy of the tube and modern communications generally, there has developed a fine way to turn the whole world into a reverberating jungle in which the sounds of chest-thumping, howling near-men can be conveyed to each other across continents and seas.

For us, the temptation and the provocation have been severe. But that doesn't make the impulse to retaliate against their tribe here any prettier. "This is a punitive action and it's intended that way," a high official of a college in South Carolina observed the other day, in explaining why the school had actually kicked out all of its Iranians. "Some innocent people will suffer. But there are some innocents in the U.s. Embassy too." This is precisely the feeling that Khomeini has been trying to generate not only among his own people but, for example, among American blacks -- a reversion to all our separate primal loyalties.

You could look at much about modern America and see in it the underlying themes that we find so offensive today. Our nuclear strategy is, in one sense, a holding hostage of great segments of the world's population,, maybe all of it. Blockades, asset-freezing and so forth are forms of siege. And surely, in the manipulation-of-perceptions-of-reality department, our media and communications technology and our public-relations industry -- we actually endow university professorships and departments in these subjects -- we are right out therein front. Nor can the ayatollah himself be said to have dealt us our first blow in these terms. Tet was never so much a military victory for our adversaries in Vietnam as a public-relations and public-opinion victory. The Russians are also better than we are at exploiting these assets -- clumsy klunks that they are in so many other kinds of conflict.

But even when you have acknowledged that the underlying themes and assumptions of much of American policy are simply more sophisticated versions of the psychological pressures being used against us now, you haven't covered what is genuinely distinctive about the current predicament or what our own vulnerability and distress in the face of it say about us. We are too "modern," too reason-bound, too successful, too powerful, too well off for it. Our weapons and our theories of their use disqualify us from conflict with the ayatollah's minions, at least on a direct-confrontation footing (how fitting that when this terrible episode had ended, we will go back to our theologically finespun arguments about MX missiles and SS20 capabilities and the rest of the good book on SALT).

Our stake in our own prosperity is too great and historically novel to tempt us to great risk or to invite what-have-we-got-to-lose fatalism. The answer is: we've got plenty to lose. Our vision of the "right" society, the "just" society, one that has faith, reason, the individual's rights and the group's well-being in the best relationship is just downright disqualifying for this competition in obscurantism, mass revenge and hatred.

We are in a hell of a pickle because of it. And we often do truly vicious things on our own motion or in response. Still, I think we will only find the right response in our 18th-century roots -- the humanistic and rational sources of our society and our success. The democratic idea was never in worse trouble -- and it never looked better.