Allard Lowenstein was a selfless, indomitably high-spirited man, whose life was almost wholly committed to humanitarian interests, all of which made him, as you can well imagine, somewhat suspect in my eyes. Yet he had that attractive blend of quick intellect and broad good humor that makes one good company despite one's views.

What is more, his commitment to human rights was not, as is so often the case, mere ritual. One conversation on the subject was enough to establish that, and another was enough to fix in my mind a lasting image: Lowenstein -- a cheerful, middle-aged pol in shirt sleeves, collar open, necktie down; an effervescent liberal who really loved people, restlessly moving about his U.N. office, juggling three or four projects. In comes a group of Eastern European dissidents to elucidate their motives for demonstrating in front of the Glass Zoo on the East River. Now enters a classy dowager to discourse on her plans for some high-minded extravaganza. There are phone calls -- Lowenstein is assisting an Asian immigrant in some matter of very minor moment to all the world save the immigrant and what is left of his family; Lowenstein is concerned about a pending welfare bill; Lowenstein takes a call from the European representative of an international rescue group.

What the hell was I doing in such a place?

Lowenstein was a fascinating man. He was a congenital reformer, to be sure, but he was always fair-minded, civilized and full of life. I did not expect my last image of him to be from newspaper reports: Lowenstein -- looking up from the floor of his Rockefeller Plaza law office, moaning "Help me, help me," as blood oozed from five holes in his torso and as an old acquaintance from "the movement," a Dennis Sweeney, sat impassively nearby. On March 14, Sweeney opened fire on an unsuspecting Lowenstein, deposited a 9mm Spanish pistol in the office's "in" basket and awaited the authorities.

Much will be said of this bizarre occurrence, for Lowenstein was a popular man. Yet how many commentators will note that here was a despicable and cowardly act? It is always thus for a well-armed assailant to fall on a defenseless victim, whether the victim is alone in his office or at a reception in Bogota or in the Olympic Village in Munich or wherever. The intensity of the assailant's principled commitment does not elevate the nature of the deed. Nor does the intensity of his sense of grievance render it any less loathsome or unjust.

Yet in our time -- a time filled with ghastly acts motivated by private and public grievances, sane and insane -- there is a tendency among the progressive and enlightened to reflect on the intensity of the culprit's grievances: his alienation, his rage, his desire for a homeland and so forth. And there is a tendency to focus on other extraneous matters: social wrongs, the ironies of the act, the fact that the weapon was a handgun, easily purchased and concealed -- as though a knife would not have been just as effective and accessible. There is always an attempt to "understand" a killer. In Sweeney's case, his intense feelings arose from his belief that the CIA had placed listening devices in his teeth. In our day there are rationally motivated acts of terror and irrationally motivated acts of terror. Neither is excusable.

Lowenstein and Sweeney were prominent players in the supporting cast of the 1960s. They worked as friends for civil rights in the South. Lowenstein was a man of peace. When his friends grew alienated and violent, they abandoned his counsel. Sweeney stuck with "the militants" and then was himself purged from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee because he was white. "They ended up accusing him of all the things they had accused me of," Lowenstein later explained, "except he had put all his emotion into SNCC, and it very, very badly damaged him." It did not sober him up. His extremism turned inward.

Sweeney drifted back to Stanford, where he had earlier been a promising student, but his intellectual resources were all used up. He never returned to his studies. Mechanically he showed up for demonstrations. Sporadically he would espouse one or another of the causes that composed "the movement." Then he drifted off to Connecticut, where, exiled in what a New York Times reporter called a "spotless, Spartan-furnished room," he practiced carpentry. One day he shot Lowenstein.

I wonder how many of the good causes of the movement were ringing in his ears when he journeyed down to Manhattan for his confrontation with this agent of the CIA. Did he still hear the chants from his days as a draft resister? Was the class struggle still on his mind? What about racism? Corporate rapine? Sexism? All the cruel and arcane exactions made by the privileged upon the masses? We know of his interest in the CIA. Was he au courant with the most recent infamies of American government? Did the arty symbols and the fiery oratory of the no-nuke movement bestir old memories? I should like to see a list of Sweeney's political concerns. My guess is they would all be pretty familiar.

How many of the protagonists of the 1960s are with us today, and under what conditions do they brood upon the canards of their various causes? This is something today's activists might think about as they confect their slogans, their songs and their jeremiads. Some of us follow their whoop-whoop and enjoy the show. Unfortunately, others take them seriously.