At a time when there is so much publicly stated despair concerning a free society's chances of doing anything much to resist terrorism, the Italian example is worth considering. I won't vouch for everything the police and courts have done here, and I don't for a minute suppose the Italians have seen the last of these attacks. But this is a country where you can witness people taking practical steps to defend against terror and limit its scope -- and doing so with some success.

I came over to this small town, a few miles from Venice, the other day where a large group of defendants from the notorious and greatly feared Veneto Column of the Red Brigades were being tried for the kidnap and murder of a petrochemical company official. Members of the Veneto Column, including some of these same defendants, were responsible for the abduction of the American Brig. Gen. James L. Dozier a few years ago and also for many other crimes. Some of those on trial at Mestre had in fact already been convicted and given life sentences. The most famous of these, and an object of much scrutiny and fascination, was a slight, attractive woman in her mid-thirties named Barbara Balzerani, only recently caught by the police. Reputedly the last of the Red Brigades top national leadership to have eluded capture until now, Balzerani was a very big catch. She had already been tried and convicted in absentia for participation in the abduction and ultimate murder of the Italian political leader Aldo Moro.

I wanted a look at more than these defendants and the hardy souls who have taken them on. I also wanted to see the special courthouse in which they were being tried. One of the practical (and controversial) steps the Italians have taken is to construct new buildings for these proceedings in the hope of rendering them secure against the attacks and escapes that marked earlier European efforts to bring terrorists to trial. This is what it is like: equipped with a special credential, you approach the bunker-like building and encounter a metal-pole fence about 25 feet high. Through it you see a vehicle pointed toward you bearing armed carabinieri. Others, also fully armed, are stationed all around. The vast fence slides open and closed in the manner of a prison gate.

This structure seems authoritative, forbidding. The prisoners within it do not. That is key. Some part of Italian society's willingness finally to take on the Red Brigades is said to have been due to the group's demystification. The terrorists had contrived to be thought of as a corps of superhuman antagonists, beyond the capacity of anyone to punish or subvert. This mystique began to be undermined several years ago when a couple of important members who had been arrested cooperated with the court, informing on others who, in turn, when they were arrested also informed to save their skin. This did more than lead to further mass arrests. It also shattered the intimidating notion that these people were a breed apart who would never bend, never be defeated, never allow those who challenged them to live.

The men and women on trial seemed anything but awesome that day. A local resident had warned me that they would look like yuppies "in their Armani tee shirts," and I must confess they did -- except for a few in coveralls and granny glasses reminiscent of the '60s. They were arranged along the left wall of the courtroom in glass "cages" (more like cells) according to the degree of their abandonment of the faith. At one end were the "pentiti," those who have recanted and cooperated with the court. Next came the "dissociati," defendants who have renounced the activities of the past but who do not help the authorities. Finally there were the diehards, known as the "irriducibili," Barbara Balzerani and the rest who do not accept the validity of the trial and try to show their contempt by huddling in a small circle, backs to the courtroom, chatting and laughing audibly and ostentatiously throughout. In the other cells defendants lounged, read newspapers, conversed, smoked the occasional cigarette and ate the occasional hero sandwich. In the "pentiti" cell, two self-confessed terrorists sat among the others, she on his lap, and necked without cease all morning long. No one seemed to mind.

True, there were also some defendants who glared out of the cells and could give you something of a chill. The day I attended, right before Balzerani and seven other Red Brigades members were convicted of the official's murder and given life sentences, was not an especially remarkable one and so there were very few press or spectators there. This made me rather conspicuous in a courtroom where everyone had pretty much gotten to know who everyone else was: and I admit I felt a certain unease whenever I saw the prisoners I was scrutinizing, scrutinizing me back. It occurred to me, melodramatically, that perhaps instead of attracting their attention, I should just let the thing drop and leave. I mention this unworthy (and self-important) sentiment only because it must have been felt -- but with justification -- by so many Italian citizens like those I saw that morning, who nonetheless have participated as judges, lawyers and jurors in the activities that have brought the Red Brigades to their newly enfeebled state.

People say that such danger is diminished now. The men and women of the jury, sitting there adorned with special identifying red-white-and- green ribbons, do not incur the same risk their predecessors did. Still they and all the berobed officials of the court who were taking part did represent a long and honorable line of citizens who had taken a large personal risk to help discharge the responsibilities of the state, and, as they sat there listening, looking variously thoughtful, skeptical and perplexed, I found them impressive, even moving.

Nobody thinks the procedures have been perfect. A defense lawyer I spoke with was eloquent in his description of how the defendants were put at a disadvantage and how the system created for trying these people had foreshortened their civil liberties. There is anxiety about the veracity of some of the "pentiti's accusations and also about the growing power of the courts in Italy. To some extent this may be regarded as a terrorist triumph: fulfillment of the aim of deforming the democratic system under attack. But Italy has become no police state.

I realize that the Italians' problem was different from our current one and from those of our European allies and the countries of the Middle East now ravaged by assaults. But this much is the same: the bombers once seemed invincible in Italy, the government seemed impotent, everyone had a thousand explanations why nothing could be done and why it was prudent to look the other way. What the Italians have shown is that these people are not superhuman, and that a society can defend against them if it has the courage and the staying power.