How do we register the shocks of history without becoming either numb or hysterical? It is a question that occurs almost as regularly as the evening news.
Thanks to our ubiquitous eyewitness, the television camera, the Beirut massacre has made its imprint on the imagination as vividly as the shape of a child's body, face down in the dust. In a cooler corner of the mind we understand that this barren little plot of earth in Lebanon did not contain all the atrocities being committed around the world at that hour, on that day. Who knows what other bulldozers were at work at the same time, trying to cover up the evidence of other massacres with the dirt of other countries? The Amnesty International list of violators of ''human rights'' is not short. Just a few months ago the television cameras were uncovering the cover-up of a bulldozer in El Salvador.
But on that night and day in September, the cameras were in Beirut, and so we know what we know, and we all have to deal with that - Jew, Christian, and Muslim. The problem is to strike that balance between becoming numb and becoming hysterical - between indifference and obsession.
At the moment, the Beirut massacre has the power of a symbol, like My Lai, standing in for all the evil in history. For this reason, it seems important to be as specific as possible as reverberations spread out in concentric circles, far beyond the event itself.
How the questions range!
Are the Lebanese Christian militiamen - the fingers on the triggers - the criminals?
Or are the Israeli forces that surrounded the camp on the grisly night equally culpable?
Should Defense Minister Sharon and Prime Minister Begin be held directly accountable?
If so, is their guilt personal or does it involve the whole state of Israel?
Is every citizen in Israel somehow implicated, just as every American was judged by some consciences to be implicated in My Lai?
How about the responsibility of the Americans and the French, who, it is charged, evacuated Beirut too soon, permitting the massacre by a kind of negligence?
Finally the circle can spread out to include all human beings who lived and breathed on earth during those hours the assassinated men, women, and children of Beirut ceased to.
In which case we have arrived at the somewhat chic notion that ''We are all murderers'' - dangerously close to the other modern notion that nobody is ultimately responsible: ''We are all victims.''
What a pouring-out of words we have already heard on the subject! What a pouring-out there is still to come! We know what we know, it seems, and we must now know it all, as if by some ritual of discrimination we men and women of reason (we hope!) can expiate this awful act of unreason.
Certainly responsibility must be defined. Not to subject the crime to the standards of justice would be to dishonor the living as well as the dead. Nothing must be minimized.
But guilt trips are another matter. Somehow enormous words like ''holocaust'' should not be tossed around lightly. Somehow the deed should be contained rather than expanded, almost eagerly, to spread a stain upon more and more humanity.
Either we should stick to the case, assuming that the urgent practical need is to prevent more massacres - nobody should be either a victim or a murderer.
Or else, after attending to that, we should go all the way in confronting evil in history, as Dostoevsky did in ''The Brothers Karamazov.'' Agonizing over the argument that suffering is the necessary, causal preliminary to salvation, Ivan Karamazov takes the instance of ''tortured children,'' much like the children of Beirut.
Let those who will try to justify such suffering as part of the cosmic plan. Ivan refuses the alleged consolation: ''I want to see with my own eyes the hind lie down with the lion and the victim rise up and embrace his murderer. I want to be there when everyone suddenly understands what it has all been for.''
This absolute peace - beyond guilt, beyond recrimination - is what we passionately want to be eyewitness to. And in settling for nothing less, like Ivan, we make a beginning.