When she was arrested, Kathy Boudin is said to have shouted, "Don't shoot me. He shot them, I didn't."

In so saying, she coined an epitaph for the erstwhile radicals of the '60s. They weren't responsible for their actions, someone else was.

Her remark is so fitting of the collective cast of mind exposed it seems almost too perfect to be true. But then the scene itself, with all its nightmarish qualities, has the elements of a bad play being reenacted.

It appears too stereotyped to be an accurate portrayal of real life. Except, of course, that it is.

There is Kathy Boudin, child of privilege and affluent America, daughter of a lawyer whose cause is justice, graduate of one of the better liberal arts colleges dedicated to instilling appreciation for the finest of the arts and humanities, for celebrating academic freedom and individual liberty.

And there are the victims, three murdered men from the working class, husbands and fathers all--an Irish-American policeman named O'Grady, a black officer, the only such on the force, named Brown, and a middle-aged guard named Paige.

None of them was favored by birth, education or circumstance. All were respected hard-working members of their communities seeking to better themselves and their families. One, O'Grady, was taking college courses in his spare time and was close to getting a degree in his chosen field, criminal justice. Each was cut down in cold blood after an armored-car holdup in which Kathy Boudin and others were charged.

Fate and history brought these people together, but it was a perverted sense of values that led to their tragedy. Unfortunately, they represent something more significant than an isolated act of violence.

You can be certain that papers in the next few days will be filled with anatomies of the radical remnants of the '60s, those who-were-they-and-where-are-they-now kinds of stories the press loves to dust off on such occasions. Probably there will be a few personal reminiscences about what it was like to be "radicalized," written by survivors of that time when you could protest, in safety, in designer jeans, on college campuses in the spring before hitchhiking around Europe in the summer.

Surely much also will be made about the members of the "radical left" and the exotic names they called themselves: the "Weather Underground" and "Black Liberation Army." And whatever happened to the "Symbionese Liberation Army"?

Inevitably, the "radicals" will assume in the retelling much larger form than they ever have deserved and their political philosophies will be accorded more serious attention than they ever have warranted.

All these, too, will be in keeping with an essential distortion of what the so-called radicals represent in America, then and now. Their influence, and their uniqueness, are among the most exaggerated facts of our time.

Strip aside the press attention, the pop mythologizing, the take-a-Panther-to-lunch mentality, the glamorizing in larger than life-sized posters of the "oh, wow, I'm a radical figure" people, and a different picture about radicalism in America emerges.

Ideology probably plays a less important role in the United States than in any other major nation. The political "isms" never have taken root here. Socialist labor movements, for instance, are common the world over, but not in the United States. Here the workers are as conservative a force politically as you will find anywhere. America remains today what it always has been: a centrist country in which extremes, whether of left or right, are viewed unfavorably by the vast majority of the people.

That doesn't mean extremism fails to remain a continuing American problem.

The right-wing haters of the McCarthy period, the Moral Majoritarian merchants of discord today, the past and present lunatic fringe groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and the Minutemen all have posed a threat to democratic government over the years by seeking to intimidate or terrorize the majority. So do the radical groups that now again command our attention.

The radicals, in particular, are the most minuscule of groups in physical numbers and in popular support.

Unlike other countries where radical violent groups grow out of an oppressed peasant class, the American radicals spring to life from a totally different background.

Like Kathy Boudin, more often than not they come from our most advantaged economic circles. They have not worked for a living. They have not experienced exploitation. They have not suffered for lack of opportunity. Their rhetoric about poverty and economic injustice is fulsome but their actual knowledge of what they espouse is slim. They speak grandly of problems of a Third World about which few know anything first hand. They mouth political slogans about what "the people want" while having little in common with ordinary working people themselves.

In the end, like Kathy Boudin, they are revealed for what they truly are: stunted, pathetic people, trapped in their own stale distortions of reality and spouting lies they don't even understand are untruths.

People who knew Boudin spoke after her arrest of her deep sincere love of humanity. Like her attempt to avoid responsibility for the bloody events in which she participated, her professed love of humanity comes down only to another ugly distortion of truth.

Obviously the Boudins among us are incapable of dealing with a terrible implicit contradiction between their actions and their beliefs, between their love of humanity in the mass and their acceptance of the murder of people who serve mankind in the essential daily and and often dangerous tasks of everyday life.

They're not radicals. They're people who have so rationalized their behavior they have lost all touch with reality. In the end, like Kathy Boudin, they don't even have the courage to accept responsibility for their actions.

Note: Some readers were disturbed at a reference I made to the three former presidents en route to Anwar Sadat's funeral: "In office they suffered disgrace, defeat, rejection." The point I was trying to make, and obviously unsuccessfully, was that Sadat's funeral brought together three presidents who had experienced, successively, special pain during their years in office. One, Richard Nixon, was disgraced, and the other two, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, knew what it was to experience defeat and rejection. I thought that was implicit in what I wrote; clearly, I should have stated it explicitly and regret not having done so.