They are the "extras" in a film extravaganza, the chorus of an opera, trudging gracelessly across the stage. Others are the stars of the drama. These people are just there, victims in this case. I am thinking of the vast company of tourists, American and international, who are caught up, through no fault of their own, in the fearful anxieties and occasional blood baths of the terrorist summer. Tourists have always been victims -- of gouging and other small larcenies, of discomfort, of ridicule. And now this. I am moved to write in defense -- indeed, in praise -- of tourists. They are the reassuring ones in all this madness.

I have come this summer from one tourist center, Washington, to another, Venice, which has far more ancient and awesome artifacts than ours, but which shares some of our host-city preoccupations. "Turisti, rivestitevi per favore!" a local newspaper cries -- "Tourists, please change your attire!" The Venetians are trying to get their visitors into something more suitable than bikinis and cutoffs for the trip to St. Mark's, just as we in Washington are forever trying to get our own visitors into something a little less naked and disrespectful for the trip to the Supreme Court and Kennedy's grave. It is, of course, a losing battle. For even if we succeed in eliminating downright indecency, we will never be able to overcome the truly terrible aggregate appearance of our tourists. But I no longer want us to. I have decided I like it better the way it is.

The point is basic to my argument: I have come to identify with and repose my trust in the horrible tourist presence. You must not think I am speaking of the well-exercised, well-spoken few, the ones in madras skirts and slacks who look like fugitives from a New Yorker ad and who ask their questions deferentially in half-remembered Ivy League French. No, sir, we are talking here of that great teeming mass of mismatched tops and bottoms, the migraine-headache-making color combinations, the eternal ice-cream slurping, the fat bellies and scrawny, uncovered legs. We are, in short, talking about the genuine article, the pushy, polyglot swarm of tourists from all over, surging back and forth across the square and over the bridges, looking variously happy and miserable, calling out to each other about the pre-eminent need to go to the bathroom and the price of some blown- glass souvenir. These are my people.

To say so is of course quite a concession. Everybody is against tourists. Nobody goes so far as to admit to being one, let alone to having some sympathy for the others. "It's a nice little restaurant," a tourist will tell you. "No tourists there, just Italians." I can't tell you how many times I was admonished before I came here to spend a month in a small house that I was making a mistake because there would be all those tourists -- not tourists like me, but, you know, tourists. The snobbish assumption is that the tourist presence is a desecration of the sites they have come to inspect, but I have concluded that this is an inversion of the truth. The tourists, in their way, humanize the monuments and redeem the history of the place upon which they have descended.

I decided this on a particular afternoon in a particular spot. It was the day I had given over to slogging through the Doge's Palace and relaxing at a cafe in the jammed piazza below, surely Tourist Central for the whole world. Political and religious zealotry dominated the news that day in yet another run of air-terrorism stories. Coincidentally, there was in part of the Doge's Palace an archeological exhibition concerning the evolution of prehistoric man, so that irony hung heavy in the palace rooms I visited. Rough-hewn stone hand axes gave way to medieval and Renaissance implements of warfare; gorgeous trappings of Venetian power and paintings of battle scenes were a backdrop to the reconstruction of some apish thing -- an ancestor of ours, I fear -- who was down on all fours figuring out how to make the first hut. One could be awed by the relentless development of human intelligence and exult in the breathtaking beauty of the Venetian achievement and even be stirred by reminiscences of the conquering Napoleon all around. But it was impossible at the same time not to be moved by these things to a meditation on the cruelty, folly and destructiveness that seemed always to accompany this passion to build and to prevail.

Looking down from the balcony at my fellow tourists at that moment, I was reassured. I joined them in the square. The only marching was being done by ordered ranks of tourists following the magenta parasol held aloft by their tour guide as a banner to which they could repair (and not get lost). Baby tourists were chasing pigeons and adolescent ones were playing rock music and the hardy were climbing around in the uppermost reaches of the bell tower. Against the short, stubby porphyry column, where my guidebook told me the heads of decapitated officials were formerly left until the populace would complain of the stench, a hideously attired American woman, all in red, lounged, mirror out, doing something improbable to her eyelashes. I looked at her and for the first time in my traveling life I did not think, "How disgusting" or "How could she?" I thought: "Well, cut-off-headwise, I would say this is progress."

In beleaguered airports and crowded museums and squares and palaces around the world the tourist is a reminder and a validation of the better, if somewhat slobbish, instincts of ordinary life. The tourist impulse is a benign one. The tourist mass asserts the claim of normal, vulnerable, traditional, undramatic life against the glamour and high drama and malevolence of the age. It is poignantly defenseless, coming off that plane, clutching its purchases and its hand luggage of physical necessities.

How unjust that these people should become victims of the contemporary crusaders and brigands and pirates. The tourist with his concern about his feet and his digestive system and whether the laundry will come back in time has been stripped of much dignity already in his travels. Compare the hijacker -- face masked, automatic weapon slung jauntily over his shoulder: he is the one with star quality. But if we are to be saved by anyone or anything it will be by the preponderance of the unbeautiful people, the touring everyman. He represents what is most solid and sustaining about us. Quit complaining about his taste. Give him his due.