From the very start, Ronald Reagan has had a gift for the well-chosen line. In 1980, he regained control of a candidate's forum by using a line from the movie "State of the Union": "I am paying for this microphone." Later, he quoted Jack Dempsey to Nancy Reagan in explaining how he got shot: "Honey, I forgot to duck." And more recently, he celebrated the capture of the Achille Lauro hijackers by paraphrasing yet another prize fighter, Joe Louis. "You can run, but you can't hide," the president exulted.

But what was once a charming attribute has now become a liability. Both the president and lesser administration officials have been sounding off about terrorism as if the Muammar Qaddafis of the world really were movie bad guys. They talk tough, they scramble jets, they put the fleet (or parts of it) to sea and then, mostly, nothing happens. This administration talks loudly, carries a big stick but -- to paraphrase a line the president himself has used -- mostly has made Qaddafi's day. He sits tall in the saddle -- even if it is a mere tractor.

The record is dismal. Aside from the capture of the Achille Lauro hijackers, a collection of dimwits who surrendered their hostages and then hopped an Egyptian plane to promised sanctuary, the United States has done poorly in either capturing or punishing terrorists. One only has to be reminded that the killers of 264 American Marines are still free and, presumably, circulating as are the ones who murdered American diplomats in Beirut. The same can be said for the hijackers of TWA Flight 847 -- the ones who took the plane, the ones who killed an American sailor and the ones who held Americans hostage in Beirut itself. Even now, Americans remain prisoners in that city.

By now, of course, we all know something about terrorism. It is difficult to prevent and even more difficult to punish. Nothing was more ludicrous than the United States sending FBI agents to Beirut after the TWA hijacking, but it was also symbolic of the difficulties involved. We are out of our element -- college graduates with neat haircuts and brown shoes presumably going house to house in Shiite neighborhoods. God help us!

Terrorist groups are shadowy, almost impossible to penetrate, on the move, succored by some governments, sheltered by still others -- swimming always in a sea that's either hospitable to them or the cause they proclaim. Justice demands their capture and punishment. Justice, though, often lacks the wherewithal to pull it off. Even Muammar Qaddafi, the godfather of terrorism whose killers have repeatedly struck, suddenly became the darling of other Arabs simply because the United States, not to mention Israel, would like to see him stone-cold dead in the market. It seems not to have occurred o the Arabs in general nor the Palestinians in particular that Qaddafi soils their cause. They could use a better champion.

But at least when it comes to mouthing off, Qaddafi has met his match in this administration. Time after time, it promises what it cannot deliver. The result is that the question of honor, of losing face, becomes an issue. It need not be. The Soviets, for instance, had two of their diplomats kidnapped in Beirut last year, and one of them, Arkady Katkov, killed and unceremoniously dumped in a wasteland. And yet not one word was heard from Moscow. Presumably it will do what it thinks it has to do -- the less said about it, the better.

Not so the United States. It beats its chest like King Kong on the Empire State Building. It complicates an already complicated situation by injecting honor into it. Even if it didn't exist, it does now. The world waits for us to act. We said we would and so we have to -- don't we? The result is that to a degree we have lost freedom of action -- the freedom not to act until we absolutely want to, to hit the target of our choosing, not the first to come along. We have turned an issue of justice into one of face. High noon approaches.

Qaddafi ought to get what he has coming. So should all terrorists. The killers of innocent people, the murderers of children have to be brought to justice. Revenge is sweet and retribution useful, but justice is a solemn obligation -- to the dead and the bereaved, certainly, but also to the living. That being said, nothing more should be said. If a Hollywood model is needed, it should be no Ronald Reagan film, but one that starred John Wayne. It's called "The Quiet Man."