What I don't understand is why, every time there is one of these terrible affairs, we have to go back to square one and start all over again. But we do. Let the Soviets down a plane or subjugate a country or exile a dissident or commit some other roughneck action we find repugnant, and it is as if we had never even heard of them before--let alone dealt with them or pondered their purposes and values or reached some kind of provisional judgment as to what they were up to and what they might be expected to do to achieve their ends. It is amazing. Whenever the roof falls in, as it periodically does, we are, as George Will lamented last week, once again "shocked."

But why are we recurrently shocked? We don't say, though that, to me, is the interesting question. Rather we begin anew--and as if we had never undertaken it before--the self-imposed task of defining and characterizing these people, the Soviet leaders and their bureaucratic and military minions. They really are ruthless, we say with an air of discovery. They are cruel. They are uncivilized and barbaric (two words, it is said, that put the Russians up the wall). They are not like us. They are perfectly awful. And so forth. It becomes, in truth, a competition and a test of the worth of the speaker: you must call them something worse than the other contestants do. By the degree of outrage you express will your own moral credentials be judged.

Some, of course, have been saying these things all along--but, unfortunately, saying little else. The I-told-you-so crowd is much better at speaking some self-evident truths about the Soviet system and those who operate it than they are at saying anything else, such as how we might reasonably and usefully deal with our antagonists. But others seem utterly and almost willfully without memory, consistency or the ability to hold a complicated thought in mind. For them it is a first-time discovery made, on average, every two years.

If a country, namely our country, could mature as a person does or, anyway, should, we would by now have the benefits of such maturity in our relationship with the Soviets. When a reasonably intelligent adult has known someone, let us say a disagreeable neighbor, for several decades, each new incident or depredation does not come to him as an absolute surprise prompting a revision of opinion and leaving the person at a loss as to what might or ought to be done by way of response. We should be able to deal with the fact of the downed Korean airliner in the context of our experience of several decades of turbulent coexistence with the Soviets, as yet another point in that continuum. It is insane that we should have relapsed anew into one of our first-principles, schoolboy debates over whether their fundamental nature is evil. What does it matter? They are who they are and they have been behaving the way they do for years, and the question is, what are we going to do about it--not how many angels (or devils) can dance on the point of a pin.

It is, of course, a moral certainty that within five weeks or so KAL Flight 007 will have gone the way of Andrei Sakharov, yellow rain and Afghanistan, onto that inaccessible topmost shelf of the national storage cabinet where we put things we don't think we'll be needing for a while. What, then, accounts for this strange behavior?

I believe there are a couple of explanations. One is our collective and somewhat misplaced faith in change, our confidence in our own semimagical redemptive powers and our related acceptance of a kind of invincible Father Flanaganism: we look at everything--even a scowling Politburo, the weathered, ancient survivors of one of the meanest political systems on earth-- and we ay: "There is no such thing as a bad boy." We will change them, we swear, or something providential will. They will come around, just you wait and see.

It is surely true that much has changed in the Soviet Union during the decades of our conflict, and from our point of view much--though not all --of that has been change for the better. But there are limits to the possibilities. And this, we seem unwilling to accept. It is a fact that whenever a Soviet leader comes into contact with us, starting with Khrushchev's visit in 1959, you will hear it widely surmised, even by some of the hawkiest among us, that once the leader gets to see what swell and productive and well-intended people we are, he will change his greatly misled mind. The entire conflict between him and us will stand exposed as an unfortunate misunderstanding.

Another part of the self-deception proceeds from laziness. There is a large population of political analysts and wishful thinkers in the United States who insist on seeing every affronting Soviet action--not just some of them--as being, in reality, our fault. They are endlessly inventive in finding reasons that the Soviets were goaded by us into doing whatever they did. This, I persist in believing, is because it is so much easier and less exacting a job to change our own behavior (or government) than it is to change either of theirs.

Behind both these habits of mind--the belief in drastic change and the disposition to blame ourselves--lies a common and, I think, disastrous assumption. It is that the Soviets and their system must be "good" in order for us to be justified in dealing with them. The implication of those who see themselves vindicated by the brutal downing of the plane--those who are saying, "We told you they were evil"--is that the Soviet leaders aren't fit to discourse or bargain with, that they can somehow (never mind the SS18s) be made to go away.

"Oh, no," comes the rejoinder--or it will in a few weeks' time. "They are not nearly the brutes you say they are. They are understandably alarmed by our warlike leaders. They are, in fact, just like us, only we insist on a cold warrior's view of the evils of communism . . ." and so on. Here, too, it is assumed that the moral character of the Soviet leaders is relevant to whether or not we should deal with them.

Well, it isn't. Like Mount Everest, the Russians are there. And, like Mount Everest, their features are not exactly a mystery. We need to stop gasping and sighing and exclaiming and nearly dying of shock every time something truly disagreeable happens. We have to grow up and confront them--as they are.