HOW assertively the television camera roams through the most intimate scenes of history these days! It casts its neutral, impersonal eye on the jungle ambushes of El Salvador and the mortar fire of Lebanon, sparing no terrible details. It hovers over a Fall River, Mass., courtroom during a rape trial, revealing everything but the plaintiff's face - and how long will this last delicate bow to discretion hold?
There are, to be sure, other taboos still restraining the camera. In Texas a condemned man, James David Autry, requested the presence of a camera at his execution. Request denied. The public, it seems, is not quite ready for that exposure either. Not yet. But few are the curtains drawn against the zooming lens. The camera is invited to the hospital to witness birth, and stays to scrutinize with equal calmess open-heart surgery. In an infamous episode a television crew filmed, practically by appointment, a man setting fire to himself.
The protests in behalf of privacy sound feebly unconfident against the encroaching camera, insisting on its right to document the face of the inmate in the asylum or the body of a victim at a traffic accident. In our news programs, as in our X-rated movies, we have become so accustomed to the public rendering of scenes formerly thought to be inviolably private that we seem hardly aware of being turned into voyeurs. Before we become too desensitized to notice our own desensitization, perhaps we ought to ask two questions: How do the intrusions of the camera affect the history it is recording, even as it records it? How do these expert closeups affect us, the inadvertent Peeping Toms of history?
More than a dozen years after the first thoroughly photographed war, Vietnam, nobody really knows the answers. We do sense that the camera has torn the veil of decorum from public occasions. To put it another way, the camera and violence seem to court each other. We sense that protest marches, demonstrations - indeed all public displays of strong emotions - have come to depend on the presence of the camera. We have a name for this phenomenon: ''media event.'' We sense that even if it does not act as a provocateur, the camera changes the behavior of people, and in doing so, changes the nature and the direction of the events themselves.
It is as if three levels of behavior now exist: private behavior, public behavior, and behavior in the presence of a camera. We sense finally that all of us, willy-nilly, become participants in ''media events,'' even when we sit, arms folded in front of a TV screen. For there is a deception to the compact between us and our news cameras. The camera pretends to be the instrument of ultimate objectivity. Meanwhile, we viewers pretend to be simple seekers of information. Yet when the images of certain carefully framed events are presented at certain artful angles, the camera's objectivity explodes, and those images bombard not only our eyes but our hearts.
As private affairs are made public and public affairs are made even more public, we are driven to defend ourselves against the intimacy of the camera by clicking off the set in order to tune out our hearts. Or else, as Susan Sontag suggests, we make the shadows on the screen our actuality and make actuality our shadows - leaving the historical figures that appear in our news no more real than the fictional characters of ''Dallas.''
Neither solution is satisfactory. Yet what can we do not to be overwhelmed by what is delivered in such vivid closeup to the passive eye?
We must see history with another eye than that addressed so powerfully by the camera. We must cool down the excitement of life simplified into the visual terms of a carnival, a beauty contest, or a horror show. We must read - soberly, reflectively, seeing events with the inner eye. Compared with pictures, words are fumbling and inexact, lacking, as they say, impact. But it may be the duty of print to be just a little dull in order to do justice to the complexity of history - in order to arrive at something closer to the truth.