THE gun battle was unequal: a squadron of eight paratroopers and two gendarmes against a young man at a lonely bus stop in central France last Friday evening. When it was over, Khaled Kelkal lay dead.
Kelkal had become France's Public Enemy No. 1. His fingerprints were identified on the tape attaching the detonator to one of the bombs in this summer's harrowing series: 55 pounds of explosive powder, nails, and bolts packed inside a butane gas canister, on the Paris-to-Lyon high-speed rail line. For three days preceding his death, he was the target of a full-blown manhunt. Eight hundred civilian and military police officers, equipped with dogs, infrared binoculars, and three helicopters, combed a patch of woods where his trail had been lost after a shootout.
In contrast to certain American examples of police use of force - in Waco, Texas, for instance - the gendarmes were doubtless within the law in killing Kelkal. Not only was he implicated in at least two of the terrorist attacks that have traumatized the country since July, he was also shooting at the police.
Still, that may not be enough to forestall the damage that inevitably results from incidents like this in which a war logic prevails.
The problem is that Kelkal, terrorists' apprentice though he may have been, was no enemy from without. Growing up in a typical lower-class immigrant neighborhood, he was a good student at a reputable high school before he fell in with a band of petty criminals and served time in jail. Kelkal and his kind are an integral part of French society.
While some housing-project kids were, in their words, ''ashamed of Khaled because he confused Islam and violence,'' many others - who disapprove of his aims and methods - couldn't help rooting for him as he eluded the spectacular deployment of men in uniform.
By early September, the maximum-security plan named ''Vigipirate,'' with its 2,300 soldiers and 90,000 military police officers, had changed the face of French towns. In Paris alone, several hundred thousand random - or not so random - identity checks have been conducted in the past two months. For example: At the Chatelet subway station, the hub of the commuter rail system, two freshly mobilized gendarmes approach a group of friends who've met at the station to trade football cards. The officers pull aside only the North-African-looking man in the group. Instead of handing his papers to him after verification, they drop them on the ground.
This is not police brutality or excessive use of force. But it sparked the indignation of seven people who were not predisposed against the security measures. The action converted potential allies of law-enforcement measures into opponents, who on some level began to sympathize with Kelkal.
This is invariably what happens when a wartime mentality is applied to groups within society, be they Muslims in France, or African-Americans, or even Branch Davidians in the United States. In the case of Kelkal, the gendarmes could surely have done better - for the sake of the investigation, if nothing else, they should not have killed Kelkal. But the issue goes beyond the question of eight officers' reflexes to one of policy. Even if experienced cops on a regular beat always behaved irreproachably toward suspects, soldiers, special forces, or police officers bathed in a comparable mind-set do not. And the result is always the exacerbation of tensions and the polarization of groups that are parts of the same body politic.
No matter how tempting it may be, in certain emergency situations, to resort to the metaphor of war, a war mentality - and the equipment, personnel, and methods of war - should not be employed at home.