On Friday I was routinely reading about Kurt Waldheim's visit to Tehran when I came across the following paragraph:

At one point, a 3-year-old boy, whose arms were cut off at the shoulder by SAVAK agents as a reprisal against his leftist father, was passed into the arms of the envoy. The youngster, clad in camouflage overalls, burst out crying, and Waldheim, smiling wanly, handed him back to his mother."

It was all so parenthetical, thrown almost casually into the ongoing surge of the piece, whose focus seemed to be what proposals Waldheim might make when he got back to the United Nations.

In fact, it would be hard to tell you exactly what the rest of that piece did have to say, so riveted was I by the picture of that armless boy, and that worse picture of what it had been like when SAVAK did the deed. Perhaps there was some mistake, I thought, and even went so far as to phone the foreign editor of that newspaper to find out whether an "alleged" ought to have been thrown into that paragraph somewhere. He in turn made inquiries, the reporter in Iran was questioned, and the answer was that the incident had been solidly verified, that no "alleged" was required.

Later that weekend, I tried to listen to the talk and interview shows about conditions in Iran and Afghanistan. The commentators, rational men, were talking about worthwhile abstractions like oil flow, balance of power and the future of SALT. But, if they had read the paragraph about the boy having had his arms sawed off by SAVAK, they gave no sign. Probably they had because they were industrious, conscientious men, and had possibly regretted it when they decided that the tyke -- one of many maimed by the shah's police -- was small change in the affairs of the world.

But it was hard to pay attention to them, either, I kept seeing in my mind's eye the sterile, neon-lit operating room and the stricken faces of the parents as they were held fast by SAVAK agents and made to watch the amputations. The father's crime, by the way, had been listening to a forbidden cassette tape. And I saw, through their eyes, the frightened face of the youngster they could not help, saw the gouting of real blood, heard through their ears the wet rasp of saw blade in bone. All this while the commentators on TV were talking of such things as pressures within the Security Council, alternative uses for embargoed grain and possible side effects on the world money market.

And I felt like a fool, unqualified to comment on world affairs, because all those abstractions seemed for the moment to be nonsense; and I was picturing, instead, the SAVAK surgeon going home to listen to a Jimmy Carter speech about how necessary it was for two religious nations like Iran and the United States to stand together against the forces of atheism; and I could see him nodding agreement and feel him being warmed by that wonderful smile.

Fool or not, however, I was murderously angry about having been obliged to pay for the saw that had rasped on those young bones, to say nothing of the propaganda that had justified the deed, and I could not help wondering just what it took to be permitted to have a say in what my country did and ought to be doing. And rebellious thoughts like these have run rife into the succeeding days.

I have even found myself, Eichmann-like, trying to justify what happened to that boy. Perhaps we did not know about that particular atrocity. Besides, the bad guys played equally rough. And anybody we put in to replace the shah -- whom Henry Kissinger had certified as a friend of ours -- might have been even more brutal. And there had been so much at stake. Freedom, after all, ran on oil; and since most of the free world's supply came through the Straits of Hormuz, and since the shah kept those open, it had been necessary for SAVAK, in the name of Thomas Jefferson, to do a little lopping. This line of thought was unsatisfactory.

It was followed by a serious attempt not to think about the matter at all. There were good, public-spirited reasons for that. For instance, since the Khomeini regime was using the boy's misfortune to justify the seizing of American hostages, any sympathy one felt for the lad ought perhaps to be suppressed on the grounds of patriotism. And if it were sympathy one wanted to feel, perhaps it was better to be thinking of those thousands of children currently being maimed and killed by Russians in Afghanistan, or of the millions of children starved and murdered by Russian puppets in Cambodia, or the tens of millions of American children the Russians will kill -- want to kill -- if they can get by with it.

Against such a somber backdrop, large as the sky, and as real, the tragedy of that Iranian child begins at last to seem smaller. However, it does not seem unrelated to ourselves. Because with Russia, a powerful, evil juggernaut running amok, it now seems likely that the Armageddon some people believe to be prophesied in the Bible is actually coming upon us. Very possibly, nothing at all can be done to stop it. And thus it seems advisable to come to our senses, and to carry as little guilt as possible to Judgment Day.

This is not to counsel breast-beating, but to suggest that if it is necessary for us to buy more surgical saws, they might be better applied to the necks of those tyrants whose regimes float on the blood of children. Now, indeed, is the time for swift and decisive action.

But this should consist of establishing strong American bases in the Middle East, and not of listening credulously while "tough-minded" academicians tell us how much in our self-interest it is to look the other way while our "friends" do their work. We did that in Iran, and the real tough-minded truth of the matter is that it failed. It is too late for any more of that. Circumstances and our own passivity have strapped us to the table in this final room; which is no place for children, not even for those with wonderful smiles.