Whatever the president may now decide about going to Bitburg, certain immutable truths will remain. They concern the way he got into this mess and the nature of the mess itself. First for the "how."

For weeks now, people -- including myself -- have been going around saying, "I just can't understand how this happened." What we meant was that it seemed monumentally stupid and insensitive in precisely the ways that this president is usually very sensitive and acute. How could he say no to a symbolic concentration camp visit (as he did at first) and yes to a symbolic visit to a German war cemetery? How could all the subsequent verbal misfortunes and affronts have followed?

On reflection, the answers that interest me are not those that have been put out about who -- Mike Deaver, Helmut Kohl, etc. -- led Reagan into a booby trap. For the question isn't who did it, but rather how anyone could have done it -- that is, what reflexes and working assumptions lay behind all the catastrophic decisions, making them not just possible, but also perhaps inevitable.

I hate to disturb those members of the Reagan constituency who will take terminal offense at this, but it seems to me that what we are dealing with here is a quintessentially Washington mind-set gone amok. It has three features:

1)This is a place built on the premise that no dispute or grievance is absolute, final or controlling. We drink toasts in the evening with our mortal political enemies. We do business in the afternoon with those whom we have accused of larceny, rape and treason in the morning. Such conduct is, in certain contexts, not merely justified, but actually essential. It makes it possible for legislators to cooperate on some things even though they are fighting on others; it makes it possible for a foreign policy to exist that does not mandate a breaking off of relations and a recourse to war over every unresolved dispute with another country. But, as with water running endlessly over stone, it can also over time erode the capacity to take any issue seriously.

2)This is a place whose every instinct is to balance conflicting interests and claims. It is in fact equilibrium-crazed. People in this political city don't just agree to give equal consideration -- a visit, a mention in a speech, a friendly nod, some appropriated funds -- to "the other side," they actually go looking for another side if it isn't already in evidence. We do not like to proclaim right and wrong, better and worse, winner and loser. We like everyone to win a little so all will be contented and vote for us. Fair enough -- in some contexts. But the assumptions have gone wild when you start trying to balance things out by adding a Holocaust death camp visit to a German cemetery visit. This particular instinct of ours in Washington finally impedes our capacity to make any moral distinctions at all.

3)This is a place that talks endlessly of moral issues, but which is essentially confused, selective, frightened, skittish, unhappy and unsuccessful in dealing with them. Our basic position, left and right, on almost any moral issue ends up being that someone else somewhere else has done something just as bad as the folks we are defending (the Sandinistas, say, or the South Korean police). The unspoken conclusion is that basically therefore nothing matters. A lot of people here (though not usually in the obvious context, Ronald Reagan) also become adept at showing how perpetrators of outrages are actually in some respect victims who must be forgiven, whether these are street muggers or foreign governments that do unspeakable things.

Political Washington's ancestral memory reminds it as well from time to time that some of its worst excesses have been taken in the name of moral passion, which therefore scares it. It also has a feeling that more than 18 months of ostracism for any crime at all is unfair. After 18 months you should be allowed to come back to the party and discuss your book contract with us.

I am convinced that all this, however shapelessly and indistinctly, was swirling about the atmosphere in which the Reagan decisions were made. And it is hard to think of a more inadequate set of inclinations to bring to the gut question of how Americans should look at and feel about the nation that gave us the all but unimaginable years of Nazi horror. The German question is of course the vast and terrible "what" of what Reagan got into.

America as a whole has never been very plausible on this subject. In part that is because what might have been our normal process of reconciling with the Germans was accelerated by the postwar Soviet assault on Europe. It caused us to bury alive -- and unresolved -- many of our own deepest grievances and doubts, rallying overnight, no questions asked, to the side of our new besieged "friend."

Perhaps it has been this need to accept and not offend a new friend that has caused so many people to transform the undeniable monstrosity of what occurred into a monster theory, one that characterizes the systematic torture and murder of innocents as in fact the work of a relatively small number of "monsters" within the system, something aberrational and inexplicable in normal human and institutional terms. But this is to miss the whole point. And it is what is wrong with trying to separate out the SS graves from the others at Bitburg. They are of a piece. Germany became what it did and accomplished its diabolical work because so many ordinary human beings and organizations accommodated to the evil, deceived themselves, went step by step into the moral darkness, did not cry "No!"

I can imagine circumstances in which an American president wished to go to Bitburg and a German government, not wishing the whole terrible business to be brought up again, tried to dissuade him. I can even imagine a speech in which an American president, far from fleeing the SS graves while bedecking others with flowers, made the hard but crucial point about their close connection, noting the great cost this had for millions of people, including the Germans -- and commending their children on their determination that it should never happen again. I don't know if Reagan will even go to Bitburg. I know what he should say if he does.