AUSTIN -- Operating on the theory that what we owe our country in time of crisis is, among other things, our best thinking, let's continue to think about what America can usefully do now.

We have a bad national habit of playing the blame game when something goes wrong. This first thing we ask is, "Whose fault is this?" We've already got congressional committees trying to figure out who was asleep at the wheel, who should have known, what should have been done, etc. Many of our more thoughtful citizens are exhuming years of American policy in the Arab world, much of which, in retrospect, seems to have been unwise.

Brian Urquhart, the great British diplomat, once suggested the Israelis and the Palestinians (and practically everyone in the Middle East) should just blame the British for everything. In the first place, there's some historic merit to the argument, and in the second place, there's nothing like a common enemy to unite warring parties. Tony Blair for bad guy.

Unfortunately, the United States seems to have replaced Britain as a unifying force there (always keeping in mind that the Arab world is not unified). It is important to understand the why of this, the roots of it -- but I think but it's more important to figure out what to do now.

George Mitchell discovered when he was working on peace for Northern Ireland that it was first necessary to let each side vent the several hundred years of frustration, hatred, anger and "they did it first" that had built up. It took a long time. Then they talked.

Likewise, Israel and Palestine. This is a do-able deal, as we say in Texas. Get the settlers off the West Bank, and go from there. The New York Times reports in a sad postscript that, before Sept. 11, the United States was on the verge of announcing support for a Palestinian state. That's on temporary hold, but it is still an exceptional step. Then we get the rich Arab countries to cough up a Marshall Plan for Palestine, and that's one down.

Iraq may be even harder. One thing for sure is that we're breeding another generation of terrorists with our sanctions there. Those who have seen it universally testify that the effects of American sanctions are horrendous. According to a UNICEF report in 2000, between 5,000 and 6,000 children a month are dying because of the sanctions. I have yet to find anyone with a good idea on what to do about Saddam Hussein -- several presidents haven't been able to figure it out -- but causing his people to starve is no help at all. Let's bomb them with butter, too. Or at least take off the sanctions.

As I wrote in a column on July 9, the Clinton administration had been leading an international charge to get control of money-laundering, the means by which terrorists, drug dealers, tax evaders, arms traffickers and kleptomaniac dictators hide their ill-gotten loot. The Bush administration had backed off from these efforts and opposed legislation to deter international money-laundering, apparently on the theory that banking regulation in general is a bad idea. (Sen. Phil Gramm also helped kill the proposal.)

I bring this up not to find fault, but to suggest we hop right back aboard that bandwagon and get it rolling good. As you have read, following the money trail is proving to be our best tool in tracing the terrorists.

Also in the area of legislation, we could try not to do dumb things just because we've been attacked. That airline bailout bill is one of the worst pieces of legislation I've seen in years. It makes no distinctions between healthy and unhealthy companies, and asks for nothing in return (we got warrants for stock in the Chrysler bailout that turned into a windfall).

Laurence Zuckerman of The New York Times reports that United Airlines, while pleading for emergency bailout loans, was wiring $11.25 million to France to pay for luxury business jets at the same time it announced it was laying off 20,000 workers. Both American and Northwest Airlines were fixing to deny severance benefits to the thousands of workers they are laying off until the unions raised hell.

The House Republicans refused to put anything into the bill to help laid-off workers (our boys Tom DeLay and Dick Armey nixed that idea). But naturally, the CEOs take no pay cut. The airlines got $5 billion in cash to cover immediate losses, $10 billion in loan guarantees to cover insurance costs for 180 days and pay for the cost of new security measures. So now every other affected industry is lining up for a handout. Being actively stupid helps nothing.

To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2001 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.