If elected officials responded to the public clamor for peace the way they have answered the outrage over the downed South Korean airliner, a nuclear freeze would be in effect by now.

But rage is the rage right now, and the freeze, which came out of the New England hills a year and a half ago as the biggest popular political movement of the past decade, was kicked over to the Senate floor by a Foreign Relations Committee which, by a vote of 10 to 7, said it hoped the measure would die there.

The nuclear freeze may be one of the few current foreign policy issues that was not shot down with Korean Air Lines Flight 007. After a stormy passage in the Democratic-controlled House, it limped over to the Republican-controlled Senate, where it never had much of a chance. The atrocity in the air was just another blow.

As Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) growled during the markup session where the freeze was to be mauled further, "Who on this committee could possibly think that the Soviets would permit verification?"

The members would like to oblige their constituents by registering agreement with the widely held view that the number of nuclear weapons in the world is sufficient. It stands at 50,000. But President Reagan keeps saying that a halt in the production, testing and deployment of nuclear weapons would freeze the Soviets into a position of "superiority," and members of both parties hate to argue with Reagan in public.

Since the plane went down, it has become even more dangerous, to their way of thinking, to suggest that in dealing with a paranoid and incompetent adversary, it might be good to consider taking steps to reduce his arsenal as well as our own.

In its first post-plane encounter with the military-industrial complex, the House, which nervously approved the freeze last spring, rushed to arm us further with such lethal redundancies as the MX missile and nerve gas. Better to be suspected of being soft in the head than soft on the Reds at such a moment. They had to send a "message."

Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) declared, in the teeth of the gale, that "a strong majority of our people still realize, unlike their leaders, the urgency of ending the arms race." Elsewhere in the Democratic Party, usually sensible liberals were jumping into the machismo competititon that the Soviet action has generated among all public men.MESSAGE

Former vice president Walter F. Mondale, for instance, said on "This Week With David Brinkley" that he would have been tougher with the Soviets in applying diplomatic and economic sanctions.

And Gov. Mario M. Cuomo of New York, who often resists grandstanding, eagerly joined Gov. Thomas Kean of New Jersey in barring Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei A. Gromyko's plane from commercial airports in or near New York City.

Obviously, the conventional unwisdom is that nobody will get into any trouble whacking the Soviets right now, even though the chances of winning against the world's erstwhile champ, Reagan, are not good.

Increasing world tensions has become the preoccupation of our diplomats. Our deputy ambassador to the United Nations, Charles M. Lichenstein, in a spasm of incivility, said that if the Soviets don't like the way they are being treated in New York, they and the others could pack up and leave, and good riddance.

That, like everything else related to the plane affair, probably helped Reagan. He has captivated the middle with his moderation; maybe he can redeem the sulking right with this sudden glimmer of their ancient vision: "Get the U.N. out of the U.S., and the U.S. out of the U.N."

Since its inception, the nuclear freeze, with its implicit statement that the Soviets may not be committed to blowing up the world, has been a source of vexation to many elected officials. It is presumptuous: its premise is that any ordinary citizen can be an arms-control expert and participate in the once arcane discussion of whether the planet deserves to live or die.

Hawks, faced with the distasteful business of voting against new weapons, and Republicans, who dislike voting against their president, fashioned a way out. Their "build-down," retiring two weapons for every new one produced, is a transparent endorsement of Reagan's arms buildup.

"Like turning in two old Volkswagens for one new Rolls Royce," said Sen. Mark O. Hatfield (R-Ore.), a co-sponsor of nuclear freeze legislation.

But congressional calculators think that the build-down proposal will get them off the hook with constituents. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) supports both the freeze and the build-down, the latter, he said, to "send a message to the president."

Both measures were sent to the Senate floor with recommendations to drop dead. Trivializing the freeze, giving the phony build-down equal footing, is one way of dealing with it, but it will not go away.

Sooner or later the voters are going to get tired of sending "messages" and demand serious arms control, despite, or possibly because of the way the Soviets behave.