"Jimmy has had a lot of promises. And the one that was kept caused turmoil.

Jimmy is 8, and he has been addicted to heroin since he was 5. Now he gets "fired up" every day. Since Sunday he has been a Washington tragedy. The first three years of his addiction were invisible.

He was discovered by The Post, and his story inflicted pain on the city. It reached the heart, well beyond the pronouncements and statistics of rehabilitation programs, assistance organizations, guidance clinics and child and drug abuse centers. Jimmy's story had such power that it created fury with no place to go, so some -- not all, but some -- blamed the messenger for the message. "What about the boy?" they asked The Post.

The Post's reporter made a promise to Jimmy and his elders. They were not pleased to have a reporter around, but they were willing to permit an interview on condition that nobody would be identified. The reporter accepted the condition because it was her only way Jimmy, and his story needed telling desperately.

The writer did her job extraordinarily well, despite the fact that she was reporting something everybody knew. Instinctively or knowledgeably, who doubts that there are youngsters caught in the terror world of addiction? So the reporter made the city face what it knew, in the flesh and blood of an 8-year-old.

Jimmy probably doesn't know many of the promises that have been made to him. There was the Great Society and the war on poverty. There are police who promise to uphold the law. There are schools that promise that everybody will be given a fair start, a chance to make it. There are agencies that promise that if you get into trouble, you can get help.

Beyond all this, there is the country's glittering promise that things will be better if you work. Learn a skill, work, and rewards will come. Jimmy understands a little of that one. When he goes to school, he likes math. "You got to know how to do some figuring if you want to go into business," he said. The business he wants to get into is drug dealing.

Once The Post's reporter made her promise of anonymity to Jimmy, his mother and her lover, there was no possibility of withdrawing it. Not that journalistic promises are better or worse than others; it was just that Jimmy's case had finally reached bedrock. To turn back from a promise to keep news sources confidential is to put the whole system of the flow of information into jeopardy. There is no escape even if the consequences are harsh. Twenty-one men and women in the country face legal action because they have refused to reveal news sources.

Jimmy had eluded all the networks that have been set up to protect him. All the societal promises to him have been broken except the one that could not be broken. That's the one that galvanized the city. After The Post's story appeared, accusing fingers pointed all over the place. A police search was organized. The mayor made announcements. There was talk, for a while, of the First Amendment and attorneys and a grand jury.

In The Post's newsroom, telephones rang all week. Callers were appalled to learn that Jimmy's world exists so close to them, and so far away. Editors, reporters and columnists, themselves caught up in the emotion, faced the desolate reality of a principle coming down on an 8-year-old. There was no suggestion that Jimmy's real name be revealed, but there were unnerving questions about the right and wrong of it.

Jimmy may know little of what has happened this week. The search for him continues, but for a time the one promise to him that has been kept caused the city to see the horror that lies on the detritus of promises unkept.