Imagine a football game between the Chicago Bears and Harvard. Imagine that the Ivy Leagers have been holding the Bears, running up a little yardage, but even so the outcome is never in doubt. The Bears get the ball. They run. They pass. They blow Harvard right off the field. And then, with the game a lopsided victory, they spike the ball.

In its own way, the United States has been spiking the ball. When it comes to the snatching of the Egyptian airliner, the United States somehow thinks it has pulled something off -- a dashing military blow. The president, when asked if he would apologize to Egypt, vows "Never!" Other administration officials, confusing the interception with the battles mentioned in the Marine Hymn, make similar statements.

Once again, though, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger has inadvertently put his finger on the truth. He compared the snatching of the Egyptian airliner with the Grenada invasion, and in that he was absolutely right. Grenada, too, was much ado about nearly nothing -- the swamping of a dot in the ocean by the forces of the mightiest nation on Earth. The island could have been taken by any precinct of New York cops in half a day.

No matter. Grenada is Weinberger's only war, and he has to make do. That might explain why he talks about it as if it were the Battle of the Bulge, San Juan Hill, Gettysburg and Saratoga all rolled into one and why, incidentally, the Pentagon awarded medals to anyone who even considered going on the island -- 8,663 in all. Now the snatching of the Egyptian plane is being given the same treatment.

I don't mean to suggest that the United States was wrong to force the Egyptian plane to land in Sicily. The government has an obligation, both moral and legal, to protect the lives of American citizens and to bring their killers to justice. If those killers happen to be on Egyptian planes, so be it. Nor do I mean to suggest that after several years of being forced to eat some humble pie, we are not justified in being thrilled that we finally were able to do something.

But a little perspective, please. The enormous Sixth Fleet, part of the umpty-ump trillion-dollar military, forced an unarmed civilian airliner to land where it did not want to land. Nice -- but no big deal. When you can read the radio transmissions, when you know the markings of the plane, when you have radar and Buck Rogers devices of all kinds, you are not exactly bringing down an eagle with a slingshot.

And a little respect and appreciation for the Egyptians. They are not our enemies, but our friends. Like the Syrians, they could have told the terrorists on the Achille Lauro to shove off, that they would have nothing to do with them. Instead, in an effort to save lives, they brought the ship into their port and opened negotiations that concluded in a fashion that was unacceptable to the United States. While they do not deserve an apology, neither do they deserve contempt.

The real danger in the aftermath of the incident is not just that Egyptian, Italian and U.S. relations will suffer, but that our grip on reality will suffer too. If Weinberger, et al., truly believe that the incident proves anything other than overwhelming might can be a tactical advantage, then they are off into ga-ga land. More dangerous by far than the post-Vietnam syndrome is the pre-Vietnam syndrome, in which dash and valor and Green Berets were supposed to solve problems politicians could not. It was, after all, the pre-Vietnam syndrome that produced the post-Vietnam one.

The capture of four bungling Palestinian terrorists will not put an end to Palestinian terrorism because it does not solve the Palestinian problem. (Did the arrest of Northern Irish terrorists end terrorism there?) Nor does it mean that anything similar could -- or maybe should -- be attempted when hostages are still being held. And it certainly does not mean that anything grand and everlasting has been accomplished. We won a game we could never have lost. That's nice. But it's no reason to spike the ball.