Washington. -- There is bitter, bitter irony in the fact that even as Americans expressed their outrage over sickening police abuse in Los Angeles, an angrily divided U.S. Supreme Court would give cops and other state agents a green light to violate the constitutional rights of suspects.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist was joined by four other conservatives in declaring that a coerced confession is not automatically a reason to throw out a criminal conviction: Sometimes a tainted confession may be disregarded as mere ''harmless error.''
Justice Byron R. White read from the bench a four-member dissent in which he said the majority had dislodged ''one of the fundamental tenets of our criminal-justice system'' -- that the state may not use inquisitorial tactics to bludgeon confessions out of criminal suspects.
This 5-4 decision that jeopardizes basic human rights is as worrisome as anything to come out of the Supreme Court in my four decades of watching that tribunal. The shining difference between this country and most others is that even in our years of greatest fear and paranoia we have not tolerated anything close to Hitler's Gestapo or Stalin's KGB. We have protected fiercely the constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure, the right of a suspect to have counsel, every citizen's right to refuse to give self-incriminating evidence.
But in recent years, partly because of demagoguery from the White House, or politicians seeking the White House, the American mood has embraced the idea that anything is justified in the name of combating crime, the Constitution be damned. Ronald Reagan ran on a ''law 'n' order'' platform; George Bush ran against rapist-killer Willie Horton. They won, thus sending hundreds of Democrats and liberal Republicans scurrying for ways to prove that they, too, hate crime more than they love constitutional protections.
What is worse is that Messrs. Reagan and Bush have packed the Supreme Court, the appeals and federal district courts, with justices and judges who believe that the Constitution must be suspended occasionally in order to lock up ''the criminals.''
The mood in much of America now is that there's nothing wrong with delivering a few fists to the belly, a rubber hose to the head and neck, a few electric shocks to the genitals, if they make someone confess to some awful crime.
The cops in Los Angeles who were captured on videotape beating Rodney King were aware of this American mindset. They, like some policemen in every city, assumed that the White House, the justices and judges, the newspaper editors, would be on their side. After all, they were ''getting tough on crime,'' and what ''law-abiding'' politician would complain just because the cops had declared themselves arrester, indicter, judge and punisher?
This assertion that coerced confessions may be mere ''harmless errors'' will be accepted by millions of Americans who assume that they personally will never be the victims of police statism. They assume -- for the most part correctly -- that the people who will be coerced are the poor who can't hire good lawyers, the lower-class whites who have no political clout, the racial minorities who have neither money nor social status nor meaningful political power.
But the histories of Nazi Germany, of Stalin's Russia, of postwar Eastern Europe, or pre- and postwar China show that once a police state gets its grip, no class or kind of people remains invulnerable to the oppressions and repressions of those in power.
The judicial outrages we are now seeing will be the most lasting of the legacies of Ronald Reagan. The people and the politicians asked for this lurch toward a police state. Only the people and the politicians can reverse the trend.
Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.