It could have happened anywhere, I'm told. But this time it was 55 miles from Boston in the blue-collar coastal city of New Bedford.

It could have been any one of a hundred bars, a thousand bars scattered across the country, I'm told. But this time it was Big Dan's.

The facts by now may be familiar to you. At 10 p.m., on Sunday, March 6, a 21-year-old woman was held down on a pool table in Big Dan's and raped repeatedly by four men.

Of course, if the story were as routinely grisly as that, it would have barely made the local papers. It would have never made the network news or the list of causes.

But this rape occurred in the presence of at least a dozen other men, maybe 15 men, maybe 20. We are told that these men did nothing to help the woman. We are told that these men watched. These men cheered. For 2 1/2 hours.

This idea of a cheering squad, a front-row spectator section, is what made this crime leap off the police blotter. The mental image of male voyeurs and the echo of their encouragements won't fade.

We have had to confront the idea that all the men in this bar regarded rape as a show -- "Sunday Night Live"--an X-rated center-ring performance for the regulars. Maybe they even felt lucky to be there.

Over time, I know we have gotten used to the idea that bystanders can ignore a crime. In March 1964, in a Queens neighborhood in New York, 38 people heard Kitty Genovese screaming for a half-hour while she was being murdered, and not one called the police. They didn't want to get involved.

But in March of 1983, in a New Bedford bar, more than a dozen men watched a woman assaulted and not one of them called the police. Because it appears they were involved, enjoying the show. This, we are not used to. Not yet.

It is what sticks in the mind of any woman who reads this story. It is what makes her skin crawl. It is what made 3,000 women--women from the ladies' auxiliary of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and women from Women Against Pornography and women from college campuses--appear at a candlelight parade in New Bedford Monday night.

It is what made them carry placards that read: "Rape Is Hate," "Rape Is Violence," and "Rape Is Not a Spectator Sport."

These men, rooting and approving rapists, forced us to experience gang rape, not as a grotesque brutal aberration but as an approved sexual event.

Inevitably it recalled the most extreme lines and most extreme emotions from Susan Brownmiller's book "Against Our Will": ". . . Men who commit rape have served in effect as frontline masculine shock troops, terrorist guerrillas in the longest sustained battle the world has ever known."

In the days since the rape--days during which four suspects were arrested, the bar was closed, and outrage was expressed by all the right people from Gov. Dukakis to Gloria Steinem--we have learned that rape is a crime but there is no law likely to convict a cheering squad. The victim, Jane Doe, can file criminal charges against the rapists and a $10 million civil suit against the bar and bartender.

But we have also watched people try to explain how such things could happen. They try to explain away the human horror by pushing it from people like us to "men like that," "a woman like that."

Weren't the rapists from another country, another culture, I was asked? Isn't New Bedford an economically depressed place? Didn't the bartender try to get someone to call the police? Weren't some of the men perhaps afraid to intervene?

And what of the victim? What was she doing in that bar, anyway? Didn't someone say she knew the men? Inevitably, a spectator told a reporter, "She wanted it. She asked for it."

But it won't do to cubbyhole this crime away. In real life, rape is an ordinary event. In real life, even gang rape is not uncommon.

It occurs at the brutal outer edge of our world, but it is recognizably our world. There aren't that many steps to the ringside seats at Big Dan's. It is a thin line that separates audience from participant.

Few of these men would have watched while a victim was burned with cigarettes. Gang rape, in a New Bedford bar, a college campus, or a Vietnam hamlet goes on only as long as rape is regarded as another team sport: men performing for each other. And rape goes on as long as people, including judges and juries and barroom customers, regard this as just another sex act: "Sunday Night Live" in a bar in New Bedford.

Copyright (c) 1983, The Boston Globe News Company