THE RESCUE of Gen. James Dozier was a triumph of skillful and vigorous work by the Italian police. But it was part of a larger pattern. Italian justice is winning its long and desperate struggle against the terrorists.

Amidst the relief that Americans will feel, and gratitude to the Italian authorities, it's important not to miss the larger significance of the happy ending to this story. Terrorism is not confined to Italy, and the terrorists always seem, at first, to hold all the advantages. The Italian police have shown what society can do to protect itself. It is an extraordinary feat to retrieve a captive alive, and this spectacular success will be reassuring to that vast majority of people, not only in Italy, who detest terrorism, its methods and its purposes. For Italians, the Dozier case is only the most dramatic example of the remarkable capability that their police have developed in this long guerrilla war.

More than 2,000 terrorists have been arrested in Italy within the past two years. That took a lot of quiet courage on the part of the people responsible for it--not only the policemen and prosecutors, but judges, prison officials, jurors and witnesses, who encountered personal risks almost unknown in law enforcement in this country as the Red Brigades and their allies retaliated with campaigns of intimidation and assassination. But it has been clear for some time that they were losing.

The psychological atmosphere within the Red Brigades has changed drastically in the last several years. Internal morale seems to have broken down. When the gunmen were riding high, those occasionally arrested held grimly to the rule of silence. Currently, it is obvious that the suspects are telling the police quite a lot about their connections.

The Red Brigades collaborate with other organizations of the violent ultra-left from Northern Ireland to the Middle East, and there's good reason to think that some of their money comes from the Soviets, who are always happy to stir the pot. But it wasn't the Soviet money, or any other foreign support, that made terrorism a mortal threat to Italy. It was Italians' own ambivalence about national authority. That ambivalence, for the vast majority, has now evidently been resolved. The Red Brigades intended the kidnapping to be an attack on NATO. The outcome was, instead, a dramatic demonstration of Italians' determination to enforce the law, and to keep the gunmen from taking over their politics.