"Is this what it was like when Kennedy was shot?"

The girl is sitting next to me while we watch television and wait for a hospital report on the president of the United States.

"No!" I answer abruptly. "No, it wasn't like this!"

For a moment, something pulsates angrily inside me, and I search for an explanation. One man died; the other, thankfully, survived. But that isn't all. I search again.

"Back then," I tell the girl, "I was so . . . surprised."

That is the real difference, isn't it? Back then, working in the wire room of Newsweek magazine, watching the machines go berserk, I did not believe what I read.

But this time, when the news came into the city room, I accepted it instantly. Indeed, the numbness of gruesome familiarity spread out across the day.

The girl and I continue our television vigil. The messages from foreign leaders are dutifully reported by thee commentators. The prime ministers and presidents abroad are "shocked and stunned."

But the people at home are not. Depressed, profoundly pained -- "not again, not again" -- we can't seem to summon up the old emotion. It is, shockingly, no longer surprising when someone shoots our leaders.

The president's brother says he "expected something like this."

The governor of Montana says, "It's just gotten to be a game. Whether it's John Lennon or the president, if you've got your name up on the marquee, someone tries to shoot out the lights." The man in the street says, sighing, "It's a sick world, a sick world."

The mayor of New York says, "Anything that I or anyone else could say would just be a cliche. It is a cliche."

Violence, by its repetition, has worn out our vocabulary of horror. Even assassination attempts have become a cliche. Again and again they rerun the film clip, as if somehow we can understand what happened -- and why -- if we see it over and over again, in fast motion and slow.

We bear witness, as an audience, to the erratic gathering of facts. Slowly the story emerges that I expected from all the cruel experience of my life.

What of the suspect, John W. Hinckley, Jr.? A high-school classmate tells us, "He was just a standard all-American squeaky-clean guy. A kind of guy everybody liked." A teacher remembers now that he chose to read "Mein Kampf."

His family? A friend describes them as "red, white and blue all the way."

His background? His parents tell us he had "psychiatric history," "wandering, aimless, irresponsible. . . ." Others tells us he was once a member of a neo-Nazi group, a gun hunt.

The weapon? A Saturday night special, picked up easily, despite a record of weapons abuse.

Memories are made of this.

I know with abysmal certainty what's ahead. In the next weeks, our airwaves and newspapers will be filled with cries against violence. We will write the usual editorials in favor of gun control or mandatory sentencing or death penalities. Round up the usual psychoanalysts of our society and its crazies. Broadcast the life and times of Hinckley. Critique the Secret Service procedures and the vulnerability of our leaders. Seek some pattern, demand that something be done.

Repeating this litany, I am appalled at how routine the unspeakable has become. My adulthood has been punctuated by so many assassins and would-be assassins that the grotesque has become expected.

"Are you surprised?" asks the radio reporter of half a dozen Americans. "Surprised? No, not really," comes back the answer.

The president's eldest daughter is full of the "fury and rage and anger that in this country, this kind of garbage still goes on. . . . I think the American people have got to become angry about the crime in this country, about the ability of people to do this to other human beings." So do we. So do we.

But the swell of violence has taken this secret toll on each and every one of us. Our feelings are worn around the edges by exposure to the irrational, the random, the evil. We now believe what was once unbelievable.

No, it was not like this when Kennedy was shot.