SAN FRANCISCO — Perhaps the quality most singular to our unique American tradition is the concept of equal protection before the law, or more succinctly, the "Rule of Law."

Unlike the legal and moral exemptions of monarchs and tyrants of old, each individual was to be equally protected in person and property, and equally subject to the same law. No exceptions!

Equal rights before the law and equal justice were to be the rule, and to insure this protection, government was to play no more than a "night watchman" role.

But government’s infringement of our economic and private lives now dominates much of society. The Rule of Law has become seriously imperiled.

Government today, in fact, embodies many of the very crimes it was originally designed to prevent and has done so to a degree unheard of in the petty tyrannies of yesteryear. Even in our post-Watergate society, murder, theft and fraud have too often become excusable when committed by those in government positions of "national security" and "social welfare."

Nowhere is this more blatant than in the lives of many of those government figures who possess diplomatic immunity.

Why, indeed, should congressmen, diplomats and others be immune to the Rule of Law? Are their missions of such enlightenment and purpose that they may be licensed to harm the innocent and freely escape to harm others? What kind of person would pursue such a career? Are they not exactly whom we would not want in government, but rather, thrown in jail?

Diplomatic immunity as an idea is not necessarily so bad if it refers solely to immunity from the peculiar local laws of nations that go beyond protection of person and property. But in such cases, shouldn’t we extend such immunity to everyone, and not merely to an elite few?

The truth of the matter is that diplomatic immunity does not, and never has meant such a safeguarding. Instead, it specifically exempts government figures from responsibility from criminal acts. Hence, the recent public furor in Central America, Brazil, and, yes, even in Iran, over how American diplomatic personnel literally "got away with murder" is perfectly understandable.