NEW YORK, N.Y. -- It now looks, with 20-20 hindsight, as though he should have taken a few more deep breaths before smacking that tar-baby that is Afghanistan. We're running out of time for three reasons -- winter, Ramadan and the prospect of millions of people starving to death.

We've run out of time to set up a bridge or coalition government and so, of necessity, are throwing our lot with the Northern Alliance. According to the Afghan women's organization, the Northern Alliance is as bad as the Taliban and, in addition, consists of minority tribes who have always warred with the majority Pushtan.

We seem to have bombed everything bombable, including the Red Cross twice. At this point, it seems to me, we can give it another month and call the war for the season, which is what the Afghans do, and wait 'til next year without any disgrace. What would be worse than disgraceful is causing mass starvation. The humanitarian aid folks are getting frantic about this, and we need to stop and figure out what we can do about it.

The trick to smiting back those who smote us is to first figure out where they are. This means using creative diplomacy and plain police work. We need to hit them without killing the innocents around them and, as Jim Hightower observes, that calls for a scalpel, not a sledgehammer. If it takes years, it takes years.

The administration is in some danger of sacrificing one of its most important assets, which is the trust of the American people. The problem is not that everyone isn't singing off the same page, but that some parties are being less than frank. And that is fatal to trust. There is no point in telling us our "surgical, precision bombing" doesn't kill civilians -- we're grown-ups, we know.

Meanwhile, back on the home front, Congress is engaged in criminal folly. Not only has the House passed this sickening bundle of tax cuts to benefit IBM, General Motors and General Electric, but they're telling us that to defend freedom, we must surrender freedom. In the name of democracy, we must abandon democracy.

There are 51 emergency anti-terrorism bills packaged under the meretricious title "proved Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act" -- stands for patriot; cute, eh? Among the more staggering proposals, PATRIOT authorizes indefinite detention of anyone "suspected" of any terrorist connection. The definition of "terrorist activity" is left largely to the FBI and the CIA, which have had notable difficulty grasping democratic principles in the past.

The definition is so broad that it would cover painting a peace sign in front of the State Department or protesting a meeting of the World Trade Organizations. I am indebted to Hightower for a quote from Gunther Grass: "The first job of a citizen is to keep your mouth open."

Legislators have already passed much of this garbage and proudly claim that the most controversial surveillance sections will expire in 2005. In fact, the 2005 expiration date applies only to a tiny portion of the sprawling bill. The police will have permanent ability to conduct Internet surveillance without a court order, and secretly search homes and offices-- the CIA will have cosmetic authority. It's an abomination.

A though this weren't bad enough, the CIA wants the power to assassinate people, just like terrorists. And the FBI, according to a Walter Pincus article in The Washington Post, is seeking power to "pressure" uncooperative prisoners by using drugs or "Israeli-style" methods. Why not just crack out the bastinado and the rack?

Bush has already created the infelicitiously named Office of Homeland Security (such a weird, Orwellian ring) and given it powers to match the National Security Agency with no congressional oversight of its activities or budget. That recipe is guaranteed to produce unhappy consequences. In addition, Bush has established something called the Homeland Defense Command within the Pentagon, giving military authorities a chance to trump civilian authorities. Come on, is he really so little aware of how dangerous that is?

There is not the slightest evidence that any of the measures will do dog to stop terrorism. From what we know of how Sept. 11 happened, we have a visa system so full of holes it's a disgrace and a problem with airport security. There really is no inverse relationship between freedom and security -- we can't make ourselves safer by making ourselves less free. All that happens when we make ourselves less free is that we're less free.

We also have an obligation to consider what kind of society we're making in unseemly haste and leaving to our children and future generations. We urgently need a serious national dialogue about these issues, but all we're getting from television is 24-hour exploitation of the anthrax scare.

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.