He was always a proud and thoughtful man. He escaped Hitler, became an American citizen, had a distinguished career in the Foreign Service. But after the incident, after the psychiatrist said he was in critical condition mentally, his wife had no choice. She took him from their home in Southwest Washington, the home they had shared for 15 years, and put him in a nursing home.

His wife knows he'd like to talk about the incident. Years ago, he would have. But not now. Alzheimer's disease does that to you. It chips and nicks at your ability to concentrate and remember, so that today, at 78, the proud, thoughtful man basically can't communicate any more.

He can't tell his wife how scared he was, or how it felt to watch them drag her down the stairs by the collar like a sack of rice, as they screamed at her for not having more than $100 in cash.

He can't describe how it felt to have the older one point a gun at him, or how much it hurt when the younger one yanked off his wedding ring -- and broke his finger in the process. He can't explain how relieved he was when 15 Metropolitan Police officers stormed the house and arrested the two men at gunpoint.

But his wife thinks the first thing he would ask, if he could, would be:

Why?

"Sure, I know them. Everybody around here know them," said the young man, perhaps 18, after a stranger repeats the names of the two suspects. "They live 'round there." He points at a public housing apartment building, less than a mile from the house where the incident took place.

Why did they do it? Was it drugs? "You'll have to ask them." Are there drugs in this neighborhood? The kid just chuckles, knowingly. All right, then, tell me this. Why did they have to be so rough? "Mister, what are all these questions? You a cop?"

It happened on Monday, Jan. 21, around lunchtime. That was not a day for armed burglary, or for much else. The president had canceled the inaugural parade because it was so cold. The woman had the day off from her government publishing job. She was returning from doing some errands, and was opening the front door when the two men jumped her from behind and pushed her inside.

The men took money from the woman's purse. They demanded more. She got a few more dollars from a bedroom. They wanted to know where the VCR was. She told them the truth: she didn't own one. "They were in a rage about that, an absolute rage," the woman recalled.

Her husband came to an upstairs landing to see what was going on. One burglar rushed upstairs, punched him in the face, stole his wedding ring and tied him up. The other tied up the woman and began ransacking the house. "I was sure they were going to kill us," she said. "I think they would have."

But a neighbor had seen the woman being manhandled on her doorstep. He called the police. They responded, in force. It had been a long 20 minutes, but now it was over.

"Why do you want to see him?" asked Kern Buck, attorney for the older of the two suspects (he's 20). "To find out what makes him tick. Why he did it. What he thinks about it now. Why he decided to plead guilty," I said. "Well, he's pending sentencing April 9," the attorney said. "My advice would be that he not speak to the press at this time."

According to police, the younger suspect (he's 16) will be charged as an adult. Police say he and his partner have been implicated in at least eight housebreakings and armed burglaries, all of them in Southwest, many of them involving the sort of violence the Foreign Service officer and his wife suffered. Calls to the younger suspect's attorney were not returned.

As soon as the commotion had died down, the woman went out and bought a burglar alarm system. She can chuckle now about closing the barn door after the horse has escaped, but "it was something I felt I had to do."

So was the letter she wrote to Police Chief Maurice Turner. In it, the woman praised the performance of the police in glowing terms. She singled out officers John Rowland, Noel Y. Mueller and Joe Kadora for behaving with "utmost courtesy, concern and professionalism." As we finish our lunch, she adds:

"When they saw what these two had done to my husband, how an old man was lying there, with blood on his face, these police officers got angry. They did their jobs brilliantly. I've never seen policemen care so much."

Alone now, faced with living in a house that contains such terrible memories, many women would put a FOR SALE sign in the window and head for suburbia. This woman won't.

"The same thing could have happened in the suburbs," she says. "It's my home. I'll just be more careful. But you can't give in to this sort of thing."

All you can do is ask what a proud, thoughtful man would ask, if he could:

Why?