IT TAKES some doing to recall how so many

Americans quaked during the Vietnam years at the menace they imputed to a tiny handful of terrorists who operated on American soil. True, we of the media undeniably deserve much of the responsibility for generating the alarm. There was in the air of the culture, however, a certain casual and profligate readiness to define terror or the thought of terror (there wasn't that much of the real thing around) not as an absolutely intolerable perversion but as an exaggerated form of protest--and who, after all, could condemn protest against a society deemed to be so wicked as ours?

It was not the viciousness of the society that generated terror. Given the crisis atmosphere, the society remained unusually open to other and legitimate and even some illegal (draft-dodging, etc.) forms of protest through the whole period. It was the failure of self-confidence brought on by the spectacle of the Vietnam War and perhaps also by the dashing of various other sets of expectations that had been raised, and incompletely fulfilled, in the preceding years. The few practitioners of terror, and the larger number of people who preached doctrines of purification by political violence, and the even larger number of their fellow-travelers, floated on a carpet of permissiveness that extended far beyond the privileged precincts from which a good number of the terrorists actually came.

Some of them have reappeared, in defiance or fatigue, over the years, and just the other day a couple of people associated with the "Weather Underground" were captured by police in connection with a bank robbery and shootout in which three lawmen died. At once it began to be asked whether this white group has links with another black group, whether there may be a Cuban connection and so on. It will be interesting to get what answers are available.

It will be important, however, not to magnify the threat beyond its provable dimensions. At a certain time of troubles in this country, the temptation to respond to political or social frustration by conspiratorial violence became, for a trivial number of people, irresistible. Some damage was done, some people were killed. But to its relief, the United States turned out to be one of the countries least hospitable to tendencies of this sort. The few terrorists became not cultural models but rejects, fish without a sea. That is a matter for quiet and thankful noting as a few more of the violent children of the '60s come above ground.