One of my favorite philosophers is the foolish but ultimately wise milkman of "Fiddler on the Roof," Tevye. The more his daughters educated him in the ways of the world, the more he used the expression, "But on the other hand. . ." This continued until he confronted a loss of values so unbearable he had to exclaim, "But there is no other hand!" To his credit, Ronald Reagan reached that point with the hijacking of the Achille Lauro.

Until then, experience had forced Reagan to invoke the equivalent of "on the other hand" more than he once would have thought possible. Even now the man who used to wow General Electric workers with his blunt and simple analysis of world events had to sit down and write a letter to the less-than-candid president of Egypt. Somewhere it must have contained the phrase, "On the other hand, Hosni, can't we be friends?" That had to hurt.

At one time, Reagan believed firmly that there is such a thing as right and wrong, and you hit back at those who hit at you. This doctrine first got lost in the fog of Lebanon. There, 241 Marines died in a suicide bomb attack that has so far gone unpunished. A group of religious fanatics murdered Americans and there was not a thing anyone could do about it.

Then came the TWA kidnapping. It was the same thing all over again. The terrorists killed an American sailor in cold blood. First they beat him and then they shot him and there was just nothing Reagan could do. To this day, the killers of Robert Dean Stethem are free, maybe cruising the streets of Beirut in a swell Mercedes. On the one hand, it makes you crazy just to think about it. On the other hand, what can you do -- bomb Beirut?

And now comes the Achille Lauro incident. Four Palestinians pirate a ship. They take an American citizen, an old man in a wheel chair, and murder him in cold blood. If there was ever an open-and-shut case, this is it. But what happens? The Egyptian government helps the killers escape. The Egyptian president plays a shell game with the truth. And then when we kidnap the kidnappers, the Egyptians yell bloody murder.

With the Achille Lauro, it virtually rained "other hands." Egypt should have done the "right" thing. On the other hand, it is probably impossible for an Arab government to take our side against other Arabs. Mubarak should have been more candid. On the other hand, the same religious fundamentalists who murdered Anwar Sadat lie in wait for Mubarak. Egypt has a lot of nerve to complain about the U.S.'s snatching its plane right out of the air. On the other hand, the United States humiliated Egypt. The mighties of the Arab states lost face -- an awful thing in that part of the world.

There were even more "on the other hands." The PLO is a terrorist organization. On the other hand, it is admired in some parts of the world. Israel ought to have the right to exist. On the other hand, Israel is seen in the Arab world as a colonial power -- European Jews taking land from Palestinian Arabs. The "other hand" says that the PLO has the right to fight and that if you are going to condemn terrorism, then condemn it when it comes as bombs from the sky, not just when it is Arabs, hopped up on drugs and nationalism, killing with hand-held weapons.

All these "other hands" have probably shredded the old Reagan certainty, taking him a long way from his Kitchen Cabinet days when he and his financial backers had answers for everything and questions about nothing. The entire Achille Lauro episode is nothing but a testament to the cynicism of world politics, more evidence that right and wrong are either irrelevant or impossible to know. Only self- interest matters. The Egyptians do what they have to do. The Italians do the same. The Israelis and the PLO play their deadly game and, God knows, we play ours.

But, as with Tevye, there is a point where sophistication must stop, where a kind of core belief asserts itself, and the president knew where that was. An American, Leon Klinghoffer, was murdered in cold blood and there was not an American who did not emotionally ride along with the Navy posse that captured his killers. Too bad for Egyptian sensibilities. Too bad for the Palestinian cause. Too bad for Italy's relations with the PLO and even too bad -- if it comes to that -- for the so-called peace process. The face of Marilyn Klinghoffer said it all.

There was no other hand. There is a point where a kind of core belief asserts itself, and the president knew where that was.