Mattie Coles is no social scientist, nor does she claim to be an expert on the problems of urban living and government. She's just a 73-year-old citizen who put into words better than anyone else what lay at the heart of last week's Philadelphia fiasco.

"We tried to tell them what was happening," she told Margot Hornblower of The Washington Post, after her home and neighborhood were destroyed by fire in that incredible episode, "but nobody listened. We had two meetings with the mayor, and he kept saying the MOVE people hadn't broken no laws."

It was a line that Philadelphia Mayor W. Wilson Goode kept repeating in countless interviews on television and in the papers in the painful aftermath of the death and destruction that swept Mattie Coles' neighborhood. Despite repeated incidents, month after month, affecting the safety, security and well-being of law-abiding citizens there, despite repeated protests, month after month, to authorities from those residents, no action was forthcoming. The reason or rationale -- excuse really -- was the one Coles says Goode told her: No laws had been broken.

That, of course, is nonsense. You need not prejudge this case, nor apply hindsight to it, to find overwhelming evidence of law-breaking. Nor does it take a lawyer to find grounds for criminal charges -- and a compelling need for police action. Here are only a few that come to mind: disorderly conduct, littering, making a public nuisance, inciting to riot, using obscene and abusive language, commiting lewd and lascivious acts in public, carrying weapons without a permit, carrying concealed weapons. That's to say nothing of the host of gross and visible health, sanitation and building-code violations (from strewing of garbage and worse to construction of an armed fortress, steel bunker included) that afflicted the neighborhood daily. On top of these were numerous reports of criminal assaults made by the members of the MOVE sect on their neighbors.

The mayor chose to ignore all these. He followed a policy of inaction. A less kind term would be "appeasement." He consciously looked the other way. Worse, he looked squarely at the problems and chose to do nothing. As he said, in a quote that was cited again and again after the disaster, he preferred "to have dirt and some smell than to have blood."

As a direct result of that kind of thinking, he got the dirt, the smell -- and the blood. And all in immeasurably worse proportions than could have been imagined before.

Later, the mayor justified the outcome by saying, "If I had to make the same decision, I would do it again. I could not allow a revolutionary group to hold the city hostage." He was referring to his decision, belatedly, to use police force to evict the members of MOVE from their row house. Yet, his actions permitted that tiny minority to terrorize and hold hostage a neighborhood for two years. They made it inevitable that official action, whenever it came, would be more difficult if only because the terrorists had become more powerful, entrenched and unchecked. That isn't to suggest it meant that the police inevitably would overreact in such a stupid and devastating way as to drop a bomb in the midst of row houses. It is to say that another kind of bomb began ticking because of the policies of inaction the mayor pursued.

The mayor cannot escape responsibility for his multiple mistakes, yet it appears he will avoid political retribution from the voters and citizens of Philadelphia. This is so, I believe, largely because of race.

W. Wilson Goode is a black mayor in a city that had been riven with racial strife in recent years, and one in which cries and charges of police brutality and overreaction have grievously affected political life. Neither blacks nor whites wish to revive that atmosphere; this, in part, accounts for the general public reaction on both sides of the color line, as measured by polls and interviews, not to explore the mistakes further. Philadelphia, it seems, would prefer to put this terrible epsiode behind it as quickly and quietly as possible.

Besides that, until now Goode has been a respected mayor. He's a calm, decent man who acts, by all accounts, with the best of intentions.

Still, understandable though some of that reaction may be, it obscures the larger elements and ironies of this tragedy. They are as almost as extraordinary as the episode itself.

For much of the last 30 years, the period when the civil rights revolution flowered from the sit-ins and bus boycotts led by blacks in the deep South, probably the most highly charged domestic issue has been law and order. In the '50s and '60s, questions of how state and local authorities applied law and order were at the center of the controversies in the bloody confrontations of the Montgomerys and Birminghams and Selmas.

There, it was a case of authorities willfully failing to protect the rights of citizens and of turning the power of the police on them, with deadly effect. Police, to many Americans, were seen as the enemies of proper law and order.

In the days of the urban and campus riots that flared as civil rights struggles gave way to Vietnam protests, the law and order equation shifted. There, it was a case of authorities often being the ones provoked and assaulted when they attempted to do their jobs. The pendulum swung, and the country took a different view of police and the use of force.

Now, in Philadelphia, we have the '80s version of law and order. It's do nothing, if possible, and hope the nastiness goes away -- or hope no one particularly important notices. This makes victims of everyone. For when force finally is applied, it comes in ridiculous and ill-considered measure and causes everyone, law breakers and law observers alike, to suffer.

"The Philadelphia Story," as the network anchors naturally described it in their newscasts night after night last week, will provide case studies in schools of public administration for years. As well it should, for it offers perhaps the worst example of compounded errors -- tragic, entirely avoidable errors -- made at any level of American government in years.

At bottom, there's a simple and old lesson to be learned. When the Mattie Coles of America desperately try to tell authorities what's happening, listen. Then, act before the situation gets worse.