AUSTIN -- With all due respect, of course, and God Bless America too, has anyone considered the possibility that the attorney general is becoming unhinged?

Poor John Ashcroft is under a lot of strain here. Is it possible his mind has started to give under the weight of responsibility, what with having to stop terrorism between innings against doctors trying to help the dying in Oregon and California? Why not take a Valium, sir, and go track down some nice domestic nut with access to anthrax, OK?

Not content with the noxious USA PATRIOT bill (for Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act -- urp), which was bad enough, Ashcroft has steadily moved from bad to worse. Now he wants to bring back FBI surveillance of domestic religious and political groups.

For those who remember COINTELPRO, this is glorious news. Back in the day, Fearless Fibbies, cleverly disguised in their wingtips and burr haircuts, used to infiltrate such dangerous groups as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Business Executives Against the War in Vietnam. This had the usual comedic fallout, along with killing a few innocent people, and was so berserk there was a standing rule on the left -- anyone who proposed breaking any law was automatically assumed to be an FBI agent.

Let's see, who might the Federal Fosdicks spy upon today? Columnist Tom Friedman of The New York Times recently reported from Pakistan that hateful Taliban types are teaching in the religious schools, "The faithful shall enter paradise, and the unbelievers shall be condemned to eternal hellfire." Frightful! Put the Baptists on the list.

Those who agitate against the government, constantly denigrating and opposing it? Add Tom Delay, Dick Armey and Rush Limbaugh to the list.

Following the J. Edgar Hoover Rule (anyone who criticized Hoover or the FBI was automatically targeted as suspect), we need to add the FBI alumni association. According to The Washington Times: "A half-dozen former FBI top guns, including once-Director William Webster, have voiced their dismay at Ashcroft's strategy of detention and interview rather than prolonged investigation and surveillance of those suspected of terrorism. They contend the new plan will fail to eliminate terrorist networks and cells, leaving the roots to carry on. The harsh criticism seems calculated to take advantage of growing concerns in Congress about Ashcroft's overall anti-terrorism approach."

Harsh criticism? Put the ex-FBI agents on the list. Come to that, "growing concerns"? Put Congress on the list.

I cannot commend too strongly those hardy, tough-minded citizens ready to sacrifice all our civil rights in the fight against terrorism. It's clear to them anyone speaking up for civil liberties is on the side of the terrorists, and that's the kind of thinking that has earned syllogism the reputation it enjoys today.

Some of us are making lists and checking them twice to see who stood with us on this particular St. Crispin's Day. And when next we see you Federalist Society types at some debate over, say, strict construction, we'll be happy to remind you how much you really care when the chips are down. With the honorable exception of the libertarian right (William Safire, Rep. Bob Barr), the entire conservative movement is missing in action, and so are a lot of pious liberals.

And what could be better than the insouciance with which the attorney general himself approaches the Constitution? During his six years in the Senate, he tried to proposed no fewer than seven constitutional amendments. Since we've only managed to amend it 17 times in the last 200 years (that's leaving out the Bill of Rights), it's an impressive record. Of course, one of John Ashcroft's proposed amendments was to make it easier to amend. Another was the always helpful flag-burning amendment, which had it been in effect, would have done so much to prevent the terrorist attacks.

Yep, if we had a constitution largely rewritten by John Ashcroft, as opposed the one we're stuck with by such picayune minds as Madison, Washington, Franklin, Hamilton, etc., we'd be a lot safer today.

Wouldn't we? How? you ask. Well, for example, uh ... And there's ... uh. Well at least we could have had a better visa system. So that has nothing to do with the Constitution: picky, picky.

In this fight for our cherished freedoms, those cherished freedoms should definitely be the first thing to go. Sieg heil, y'all.

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.