What are conscientious citizens like you and me to make of the charges and countercharges of atrocities and human rights violations in Nicaragua?

The question has a moral importance, because most of us, being squeamish if not consistently high- minded, surely want to be on the right side of these issues. Or at least we do want not to be on the wrong side.

It has a political importance too. If we really believe that it ultimately comes down to a threat to San Diego, then most of us may be ready to stomach some very rough stuff by our tigers, the contras. As a country, however, we are finding it hard to figure out whether the threat to the liberty and way of life of Americans is of those dimensions. In those circumstances, where a lot of people come down on aid to the contras is likely to rest on a judgment on human rights and atrocities.

Things are a bit different when we contemplate whether we care so greatly about the liberty of Nicaraguans that, to dislodge the Sandinistas, we would swallow our scruples about the contras. My sense of the general drift is that our readiness to live with the Cubanization of Nicaragua could be importantly affected by whether we felt the Sandinistas or the contras were the more brutal and harsh.

The easiest approach, of course, is to believe the worst about either side and to blot out all the rest. It simplifies your political choices. If you are chided for being unfair and looking at only one part of the picture, you can reply that you don't care, that this is what is

TAKE 036055 PAGE 00002 TIME 11:37 DATE 03-14-86 important to you -- either revolution or liberty.

For instance, you can use the accounts of contra violations, which are mostly in the category of one-on-one atrocities, o characterize the entire opposition to the Sandinistas, the democratic part as well as the ex- Somocista part; on that basis to pronounce the entire resistance beyond the pale, and then to declare that the death of democracy in Nicaragua is the contras' fault, not the Sandinistas'. Many of the people who go this crooked route do not seem to mind that they end up as apologists for Sandinista totalitarianism.

Or you can concentrate on the Sandinistas' violations, which fall in the categories of state repression and curtailment of rights. People who go this route find themselves arguing that, well, the contras are not so bad in this department as the Sandinistas and anyway the contras' lapses are remediable, given the benefits of American tutelage.

I am somewhere else. There is, first of all, an impressive and truly disturbing continuity to the reports of contra atrocities. Try to discount the propaganda of Sandinistas and the Americans whom the Sandinistas gull. The sinking feeling remains that the contra military leadership has never been brought under the operational control of the good democrats in the contra political leadership, and will not or cannot discipline the troops. Whether it's in the culture or the water, it's awful. These people are bloody.

The Sandinistas, being in power, have already gone far either to win over or intimidate (who knows in what proportions?) large parts of the population. Their offenses now are those of discipline, not disorder. People such as

TAKE 036055 PAGE 00003 TIME 11:37 DATE 03-14-86 Interior Minister Tomas Borge are, I suspect, Leninist to the core: ready to commit any crime in the name of the revolution. Current circumstances, however, require them to be not so much bloody as hard. The relevant evidence, from Cuba, is that if they are confirmed in power, they will be harder. In the United States, liberals tend to react more to the sight of blood, conservatives to the spectacle of hardness. But it is wrong to pick out one if it means letting the other pass by.

From the human rights standpoint, then, we are dealing with two bad guys, the one with feudal tendencies, the other with a Soviet-like bent. There is a strong temptation to wash one's hands and walk away. The trouble with that course is that it hands the Sandinistas Nicaragua on a platter, because the Soviets, who live in Afghanistan with a measure of bloodiness far surpassing Nicaragua's, and the Cubans, who are Leninists too, will not walk away.

The answer? Recognize that the nature of the Sandinistas and the contras accounts for some of their offenses but that the heat of the war greatly intensifies their offenses, and look for a way to wind down the war.

Save what lives can be saved and salvage what liberty can be salvaged by having the United States step back from the war and the other Latin nations step forward into the politics, as they can do only if the United States makes the space.