Every hijacking is in a way a consequence of the failure to deal with previous hijackings. Six months ago, Iran gave haven to terrorists who hijacked a Kuwaiti plane to Tehran, then tortured and murdered American passengers on board. The Reagan administration huffed and puffed, but after the ordeal was over, never lifted a finger against Iran, the state that sponsored the crime.

It should not surprise us that Americans are now the preferred target of international terror, since attacks on Americans can be conducted with impunity. The outrage over the hijacking of TWA Flight 847 may change that. We may finally be ready to retaliate. And when we do we will need guidelines. I propose a doctrine of disproportionate response.

Americans don't like disproportionality. We are hooked on fairness, and proportionality is its cardinal principle. A few weeks ago, in a different context, President Reagan unveiled a policy of "proportionate response." The president had decided to abide by the SALT II Treaty. But because the Soviets are cheating, and to prove he is not just turning Poseidons into plowshares, Reagan declared that to the extent the Soviets violate arms control treaties, the United States will do the same.

An eye for an eye. No more, no less. The Soviets are violating the ABM Treaty? So will "Star Wars." They are deploying a second new missile (only one is allowed by treaty)? We will do likewise.

Now, the notion of doing unto others as they do unto you comes with some authority. In foreign policy, however, it also has limits. We learned some of those limits in Vietnam, where a policy of gradual escalation -- "graduated response," it was called -- produced not commensurate restraint on the other side but only stalemate at ever higher costs. Compare that experience with the classic demonstration of the uses of disproportionate force: Poland, where a swift and overpowering show of force (it hardly had to be used) crushed the 10 million-strong Solidarity movement -- in a week. The Soviets did the same in Czechoslovakia in 1968.

The Reagan administration had experience with this overwhelming kind of force in Grenada. It had experience with the other kind in Beirut, where it deployed, with delicate and absurd proportionality, a garrison of "peace-keeping" Marines. The results are instructive.

In the state of nature that is the international arena, the principal restraint on the more lawless players is the fear of retaliation. And if they can count on its being no worse than any contemplated violation, they are handed not only an incentive to violate but the initiative too. It is they who then choose the level of violence, who dictate the rules and nature of engagement.

Proportionality is a laudable principle in domestic politics and, in general, not a bad way to treat the world. But not when dealing with particularly lawless and nasty adversaries.

TWA Flight 847 brings us face to face with the nastiest: people who kidnap Americans by the planeload; torture and murder a passenger for the shape of his (presumably military) crewcut; and select, as last did the Nazis, others for especially harsh treatment on the basis of their (presumably Jewish) ethnicity. Proportionality is no way to do business with such people.

There is not much that can be done while the hostages are being held. There is much to be done after. If the kidnapping and murder of American air passengers is not to become a biannual event, we must respond with appropriate disproportion. The first thing to do is destroy Beirut airport, now Shiite terror's single most important military asset. It is what turns just another Lebanese gang into an international threat. The Shiites, in turn, have turned Beirut airport into Terror International, a place where any hijacker can find reinforcements, protection, even (as was reported of one TWA hijacker) a night off for dinner with the family. It is a pirate's haven. Until it is rendered unusable, no aircraft anywhere is safe.

Then demonstrate to Iran that its arming, training and support for terror has a heavy price. One demonstration might take place at Iran's single most important economic asset, Kharg Island, an oil port, the revenues from which Iran needs to carry on its war with Iraq. Another might be staged over Shiite terrorist bases in Beirut and Lebanon's Bekaa Valley.

In 1969 Leonard Garment, a Nixon friend about to visit Moscow, was asked by Henry Kissinger to convey a message to the Soviet Americanologists he would be seeing. The message: the new president was an unpredictable man capable, if the occasion demanded, of acting crazy. It was the madman theory. Kissinger, and Nixon too, knew how useful it was for the Soviets to think that the president, if sufficiently provoked, was liable to do just about anything.

Today the world is convinced that there is much the United States is simply never liable to do to defend itself. We could use a little of the madman factor, particularly in response to terror, where our response, such as it is, has been too measured by half.

A doctrine of disproportionate response will not abolish terror, but it will make terror very costly. God knows, we've tried it the other way. And we know the result. It is sitting on a Beirut runway.