THE ADVANCE of civilization is never so consistent or reliable a process as you might hope.

In a riot before a championship soccer game in Brussels, 38 people were killed. A dreadful accident? Not quite. The event was dreadful enough, but it wasn't precisely an accident. Certainly no one expected the concrete retaining wall to collapse on the people under it. But the bloodshed had begun with a deliberate attack on the Italian team's supporters by some of the fans of the Liverpool club which, like many British teams, has acquired a turbulent and sometimes violent following that accompanies it abroad. Most of the victims were Italian. Despite the deaths, the Belgian authorities went ahead with the game on grounds that cancellation might only make the crowd more dangerous.

Every country has its own pattern of violence. Here in the United States it runs to murders with guns and to street crimes. In Italy the streets are safe but there's an entrenched tradition of political terrorism. In Britain the incidence of bloody fights among the crowds at soccer matches has been increasing. The explanations are never exact but they have to do with the circumstances of life for young men in Britian's bleak industrial cities. Wages are low, unemployment is extremely high, and boredom is epidemic. It's not only in Britain that athletic competition becomes the focus of nationalistic passions. Infinitely better to focus them on sports, just about anyone would say, than on the alternative that comes to mind. But long periods of peace sometimes leave at loose ends that part of the population that enjoys a good fight -- particularly when it hasn't anything much else to do.

British life has never been as peaceful as most Americans think. But if the British reputation for tranquillity is spurious, the British reputation for decency is entirely genuine. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher immediately declared that the people who started the fighting "have brought shame and disgrace to their country and to football." The British government has authorized immediate compensation to the victims and their families, an unusual act of national apology. There is serious talk in Britain of pulling all the English teams out of international competition next year.

Those first reactions are altogether the right ones. It was the kind of disaster that suggests an erosion of the fundamental code on which a society prides itself -- none with greater reason than the British. There is no country better equipped, by its own laws and traditions, to repair the damage.