The more I ponder it, the less surprised I think any of us should be that the determined intruder made it up the drainpipe and into the royal bedchamber. Startled, yes--in particular, the Queen of England was surely entitled to have been somewhat taken aback at the sight of the uninvited Mr. Fagan standing by her bed at dawn. But surprised that it could have happened? No. The episode is just one more in an ever enlarging array of examples of the vast distance between myth and reality where the competence of organizations is concerned. The organization in this case was nothing less formidable than the security apparatus designed to protect the Queen of England--which turned out to have been, as it seems, on a several-years- long tea break. What a perfect metaphor for the characteristic revelation of our time.

There is, of course, something universally and eternally appealing to people in the idea of a single determined individual's confounding a formidable official barrier and making it to the other side, provided no harm is done to anything but the dignity and vanity of the officials who were trying to keep him out. Folks always cheer the lone protesting figure who manages to outwit the forces of exclusion and end up on the VIP side of the wrought-iron gate or velvet rope or whatever. And I think, too, that there is often at least a little mixed feeling, if not an actual whisper of reassurance, in confirmation of the truth that the guys with the guns --the police, the soldiers, the investigators and operatives and guards--are not 100 percent efficient, not supermen who can do whatever they want.

But I don't think the caption to this story is the daring and enterprise of a lone, romantic scaler of walls. And I don't think the major message is: thank God the authorities aren't too good (for our own good) at what they do. I think the Buckingham Palace caper is just another element in the crash of our assumptions about power and the trappings of power and the look of power. "Assumptions" is the key word here. We keep learning, though not necessarily believing, that daddy is not all powerful, that the most masterful-seeming and authoritative-looking protectors of the general well-being are often neither masterful nor authoritative, that what seems safe or certain isn't.

Clearly we are using wrong standards of judgment, entranced by a veritable bouquet of romantic lore and nonsense. I mean: all those redcoats and the bearskin hats and the changing of the guard and the aura of invincibility and timelessness--it all transmits a powerful, if subliminal, signal that things are under control here, however chaotic they may be somewhere else. I don't know about you, but I fell for it, and I don't mind saying that I am getting a little embarrassed at the number of times this has happened over the past two decades.

For me, it began with the Bay of Pigs, right after the rumors of an impending American-supported action had been confirmed. I well remember sitting around with a bunch of young friends arguing passionately among ourselves as to whether this was a justified military action, whether we as a country should do what John F. Kennedy had authorized. We assumed and did not even bother to stipulate an American victory. It simply did not occur to us that all those confident-looking government people with their much vaunted access to secret information and all those spiffy-looking military types could have it absolutely wrong, could blow it. Certain things one learned about the frailty and jerry-built enterprises of the security people during the Watergate years had the same capacity to astonish. And so, of course, did the information that came out in the aftermath of the failed hostage-rescue mission at Desert One. The quality of the queen's protection fits in nicely with all of this; it gives it a touch of class, puts a diamond crown on its head.

It is true that we all know that our own organizations--the clubs, businesses and bureaucracies within which we work--are not nearly so deliberate or controlled as they tend to look when the fruit of a series of accidents, confusions and general dishevelments is revealed in the outside world as "policy." The wry, self-disparaging one- liners that adorn our office-hours coffee mugs and desk calendars attest to this. So it isn't just the security people. And I suppose it is also true that the press has played some part in reinforcing these illusions of omnipotence on the part of uniformed authority, even though we are more often charged with "tearing it down." We are, after all, blessed with the ability to characterize our own misapprehensions as universal, calling something a "surprise development" and thus sharing the burden of having been surprised with others. Still, I think that we are talking here about something distinctively to do with military and security forces and that people's widespread illusions on the subject are something more than merely what the press has encouraged us to believe over the years.

It is the "trappings trap" we have all fallen into; we are suckers for the apparatus and the appurtenances of power. After Watergate there was a lot of discussion about whether our presidents were enjoying such things too much, and Jimmy Carter declined to make use of many of them. But no one thought to ask whether the all-seeing, all-knowing machinery we have created, the thing with the siren on top and the scowling, chevroned personnel inside, knew what in the hell it was doing. Our perception of life abroad is susceptible to the same confusions; everyone knew the Iraqis would beat the Iranians because they were well-armed and trained martial-looking third-worlders against a bunch of ululating weirdos carrying pictures of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Everyone knew the Cambodian hadn't been invented who had anything mean or military in him: they all wore pale, loose cotton clothes and smiled a lot and ate squooshy fruit--what kind of a soldier is that?

We fall for a uniform, for an air of Occidental-style proficiency, for a tough, mean look, for a shako headdress, for the mystique of regimental or magisterial tradition. We better look out. The calculations we base on all this concern a great deal more than drainpipes and people who fantasize about the queen.