AGAIN, the witnesses described a sound "like firecrackers." Then the central figure in the crowd staggered and fell.Again, the gunman was quickly seized and immediately identified himself. If the identification is correct, he is a product of the savage street warfare that was running in the Turkish cities before the army took over the country. But it seems that he had no permanent allegiance to any of the factions, having little more than a loose relation to some of the most bloody-minded -- essentially his own one-man party, whose program was violence and whose purpose was assassination as an end in itself. Imprisoned earlier for murder, he had escaped and threatened to kill the pope during his Turkish visit. Then, a year and a half later, in St. Peter's Square, the gunman got close enough to shoot.

Getting close to this pope is not difficult. More than most -- perhaps more than any in modern times -- he has felt a moral responsibility to travel endlessly, show himself everywhere, mingle with the crowds, talk and listen to all sorts of people everywhere. He has used that continual contact to demonstrate his concern for them with a warmth and clarity that has made him an uncommon force in the world's affairs. It will be a long time before any outsider knows much about the pope's role in, for example, the recent events in his native Poland. But it is already clear that he has worked powerfully for peaceful compromise and wider freedoms for Poland's people. His stature and his interest in the country have also provided one more good reason against intervention by Poland's eastern neighbor.

It is always the contrast between the assassin, as a person, and his target that is the most poignant and appalling quality of these shootings. Of the two, one always seems to have an extraordinary ability to draw people to him, and the other suffers the utter and fatal lack of it. Measured by their respective capacities for faith, hope and charity, these two men represent the opposite ends of the scale.

Rome, like Washington, used to have a deserved reputation as an unhealthy place to live. Both were swampy and bug-ridden, damp in winter and tropical in summer. The engineers and the doctors, between then, have rid both places of typhoid and malaria. But there is another ancient disease, also apparently contagious, that keeps cropping up, both in Rome and here, for which there seems to be no remedy.