Had the Soviets shot down an American commercial airliner, the public pressure for reprisal would have known almost no bounds. Had there been no direct American interest, it is safe to say that the public reaction would have been of quite another character.

In the event, it was a South Korean 747 with other foreign nationals as well as the Americans among the 269 people who lost their lives. Thus do the particular circumstances define the crime and inform the search for a punishment that fits.

The almost uniquely American impulse initially in matters having to do with Soviet brutalities is to take it, as it were, personally--the more so, understandably, when an outspokenly anti- communist member of Congress is among the victims. The impulse is encouraged by a president who holds the Soviet Union to be the "focus of all evil" and evil, in whatever its manifestations, ultimately directed at the United States.

So the first demands for American retaliation were predictable: cancel the new grain deal and the new Caterpillar tractor contract for pipeline-laying equipment; empty the Soviet Embassy; recall our man from Moscow; freeze the developing thaw in cultural exchanges; call off Secretary of State Schultz's meeting in Madrid with his Soviet counterpart, Andrei Gromyko.

At this writing, not all the decisions on the U.S. response have been made. A crucial question for any U.S. response is the ultimate Soviet response. If it is going to continue to be a pack of lies, disprovable by reliable and sophisticated intelligence (including corroborative Korean and Japanese evidence), then the monstrosity of the act becomes immeasurably compounded.

That is just why Shultz should keep his date in Madrid, as he has said he will, and confront Gromyko with the Korean case as the first order of business. Only by such a high-level, high-visibility test can the United States (a) take the full measure of the Soviet affront to international order and (b) put itself firmly in a position to organize what ought properly to be an international, as distinct from a U.S. unilateral, response.

As the administration appears to have concluded, the issue is not between the Soviet Union and the United States. It is between the Soviet Union and the international community. Hence a full explanation of Soviet "rules of engagement" in instances of inadvertent violations of its airspace, with a view to holding the Soviet Union to worldwide safety standards; the broadest possible international censure of the Soviet Union, presumably by the United Nations; Soviet restitution with the inference of apology and regret, at the least.

The administration seems wisely to be focusing on reprisals in the area most closely related to the offense. It may seek to mobilize international restrictions on air travel to and from the Soviet Union, including constraints on landing and overflight rights for Soviet civilian and military flights.

You can argue with the particulars. But the general approach--the multinationalization of the response and the precision of the penalties--ought to be weighed in the light of our all-too-vivid recent experience with U.S. unilateral, anti-Soviet sanctions.

Much of what is now being said of this latest show of Soviet brutality was being said after the invasion of Afghanistan and the repression of Poland--that "You can't do business with murderers." Both brutalities are prominent in Ronald Reagan's catalog of Soviet "evil." But as a practical and/or political matter, the president has found reasons to end Jimmy Carter's Afghanistan-inspired grain embargo, roll back his own Poland- inspired European pipeline sanctions, and enter into new grain-and-trade deals --without getting any satisfaction from the Soviets.

So what would be the realistic gain from reimposing new U.S. sanctions or cold-shouldering that would not be offset by the loss to U.S. interests in open channels, in trade, in arms control? From the evidence already laid out, the Soviets can offer no honest explanation that is also presentable. Regrets or apologies or compensation seem too wildly out of character with the bestiality of the act or the arrogant insensitivity of the lies.

If that holds true, the Soviets could be made to pay something with world opinion if the case against them is spread out, complete with tapes of intercepted radio transmissions and other high-tech evidence. They could be made to pay in material terms as well by collective, international restraints on their freedom of air transit.

And the record suggests that they generally wind up paying next to nothing for unilateral sanctions that the United States, for whatever reasons, is not prepared to sustain.