If you want to know what policy is, try asking the waiter why you can't substitute rice for mashed potatoes. The answer is policy. If you still don't know what policy is, ask the parking attendant why you can't make a claim for damages after you have left the lot. The answer once again is policy. It's another term for not thinking.

Policy in one of its many guises is responsible for the death of some 60 passengers aboard Egyptair 648. The policy in question is the one that holds that you never negotiate and positively never acquiesce in the demands of terrorists. They are, in the words of Secretary of State George Shultz, not "worth the time of day. They're not even people, doing what they're doing."

Shultz made those remarks before Egyptian commandos attempted a rescue that, it now appears clear, was doomed from the very start. But even after the results were in, the United States, adhering to policy, commended Egypt for taking action. Never mind that more than 50 passengers were killed. Never mind that it could be argued that the policy of withholding fuel from the plane and keeping it in Malta had totally backfired. Everyone was congratulated. They had stuck to policy.

The hijacking of the Egyptian airliner was a particularly nasty terrorist incident. It seems to have been led by a madman who, according to witnesses, danced in the aisles and cracked jokes after "executing" passengers. Neither he nor his colleagues ever enunciated their demands, aside from demanding that the plane be refueled, and they were eclectically and somewhat contradictorily armed -- small-caliber pistols and hand grenades. The former sometimes proved inadequate even for up-close "executions"; the latter was more than adequate to kill many people.

It goes without saying that it is always easier to second-guess than to guess -- to analyze with all the facts at your disposal instead of making a decision in the midst of terrible confusion. The latter, of course, is what Egyptian, Maltese and, maybe, U.S. officials had to do. None of them wanted things to turn out the way they did. Egypt for one can hardly take pride in an operation in which its soldiers reportedly killed some of the very people they were supposed to rescue.

But having said all that, it nevertheless is clear that a kind of mindless policy is being substituted for some hard thinking. The policy holds that you never negotiate with terrorists and, if possible, you kill them instead. The idea, besides having a beguiling simplicity, is to discourage other terrorist acts. The trouble with that is that terrorists are sometimes suicidal and could not care less that they have no chance of success. "Success" is martyrdom.

Even aside from that, though, is the suggestion that what fuels the policy is not logic but machismo and resentment. Administration spokesmen talk of terrorism as if it were an insult to American resolve, as if -- in street talk -- terrorists get into our face, back us down, humble an administration that once thought the problem so simple and talked about it in those terms. Only Jimmy Carter was incapable of dealing with terrorism. A new administration would banish it from the earth.

In a statement issued after the botched rescue attempt, the State Department said, "Terrorism, by its very nature, rejects the values civilized peoples hold dear." And, of course, that's true. But terrorism succeeds beyond the incident in question if, in the fight against it, governments also reject "the values civilized peoples hold dear." The foremost value is the sanctity of human life, especially the life of noncombatants. If so-called rescue operations are attempted out of a sense of national pride or because everyone has simply had it with terrorism, then, like the terrorists themselves, governments have substituted other values for the ones they are suppposed to hold most dear.

In the past month, two different governments have moved forcibly and with great violence against terrorism. In Colombia, 52 innocent people, along with 18 M-19 guerrillas, were killed in a government attack on the Palace of Justice, where hostages were being held. In Malta, some 60 died when Egyptian commandos also answered violence with violence. In both instances, governments adhered to policy. Next time, they ought to try thinking.