DEATH UPON death is the scene in El Salvador. As the funeral of Archbishop Oscar Romero, himself gunned down while saying a funeral mass, gunmen fired obscenely into the crowd of mourners, leaving some 30 dead and hundreds injured. In a land where hundreds die from political murder monthly, the toll was notable not so much for its size as for being witnessed by the large foreign press corps gathered for the archbishop's funeral. As with his murder, a debate over whether the left or the right was responsible for the mourners' massacre is feeding into the larger debate over how the violence can be brought to an end.

Especially with Archbishop Romero's death, many in El Salvador are yielding to a fatalistic view that further violence is unavoidable -- to resolve conflicts seemingly unresolvable by political means and to purge the country of its deadly past. In this spirit, despairing admirers of the murdered prelate urge that the United States remove itself from the Salvadoran struggle, specifically, by countermanding its offer of military equipment to the civilian-military junta ruling -- precariously -- there. That junta, however, including respected Christian Democratic politicians and reform-oriented officers, seems to the administration -- and to us -- to offer the last available barrier to a collapse into total barbarity and civil war. El Salvador's infamous oligarchy, with its private armies, on the right and various terrorists, some Cuban-equipped, on the left oppose the junta for its promise of order and reform. That is its challenge and its best advertisement too.

Americans may fairly ask: Why should the United States, by conducting an activist policy, risk being burned? Why not let the fire rage? For one reason, El Salvador's special history lends morbid credibility to forecasts of deaths in the tens of thousands -- a human catastrophe the United States is morally bound to help try to avert. For another, such a deepening tragedy would cripple a country in the American neighborhood, leaving it vulnerable to extremist takeover and liable to affect other places of more or less revolutionary potential in Central America. The example of Nicaragua, where American policy did not move fast or far enough to preempt a military victory by leftists alone, is relevant here. The hint down the road of turbulence in Mexico, whose proximity, size and oil make its future a matter of all-consuming importance, gives final reason for the United States to encourage and fortify the region's forces for peaceful change.