I'm not sure whether the fact that we're witnessing the decline and fall of just about everything has caused so many of us to be ill-tempered and mean-sprited -- or whether, just possibly, it's the other way around.

We've begun, however, to Balkanize, ethnically and philosophically, and in the process, each hyphenated group is becoming increasingly intolerant of the attitudes of every other group. Ironically, this is happening in the context of a society which has committed itself to eliminating second-class citizenship.

As a member of this nation's largest minority, I've become aware of a rising hostility and a declining civility, all directed at us. I -- and millions like me -- have been glowered at, cursed, scolded, lectured and generally made to feel like some kind of public nuisance, a menace to God-fearing folk, a weakling and a moral leper, just for smoking cigarettes.

A year or so ago, as I was finishing lunch in a restaurant in New York, I lit a cigarette (I was not in a "no smoking" area). From the next table a man snarled, "must you smoke?"

When I turned, I noticed the surly man had a drink in front of him, so I responded with my own rude question, "Must you drink?"

Now he was startled, and asked, "What the hell does that have to do with anything?"

I grumped, "I'm an alcoholic. Your drinking offends me!"

Checkmate.

The fact is that while I am an alcoholic -- a recovered one -- neither his nor anyone else's drinking offends me. Most of us alcoholics are quite tolerant of boozers. If you want to quit, we'll try to help you, but if you want to drink, go, baby! I think that's a rather civilized approach.

It contrasts rather sharpley with the attitudes of so many people who normally will behave with complete civility and consideration of the rights and feelings of others, but who go stark, raving bananas when they encounter a smoker.

Friends of mine have had total strangers yank cigrettes out of their mouths, in one instance ripping away skin.

City councils pass ordinances, state legislatures enact laws and federal agencies issue edicts, all designed either to inhibit or prohibit smoking, to make the smoker at best uncomfortable, at worst a criminal.

Civil libertarians, ready to rush to the barricades to defend the rights of, say, a couple of hundred Polish Puerto Ricans, will either call a cop or try to make a citizen's arrest if any one of the estimated 53 million smokers lights up.

Otherwise intelligent, rational people make statements which in any other context, in reference to any other group, would be downright outrageous.

Like Ellen Goodman, whom I've never met, but whose columns and broadcasts convince me she bows to no one in her espousal of all the Right Causes. Not long ago on the "Today" program, she smiled (rather benignly, I thought) and said something like ". . . if smokers are being relegated to the back of the plane, so much the better. . ."

And while I don't mean to pick on what John Carmody refers to as "poor old NBC," nonetheless, not long ago their medicine man, Dr. Art Ulene, casually (and I thought rather smugly) announced that at his house no one is permitted to smoke. And went on to say that he didn't think he and his wife were being unreasonable when they insisted that any of their guests who might want to smoke could go out in the hall.

There are some who are insisting that the CAB ban all smoking on all airplanes; meanwhile the smoking sections keep getting smaller. And as I understand Eastern's commitment to reserve at least two-thirds of their seats on its plane for non-smokers, the airline is prepared to go even further: If a non-smoker wants a seat, and the only one remaining is in the smoking section, then that seat -- and the ones adjacent to it -- become off limits for addicts, and the poor devils can damm well suffer withdrawal for the duration of the flight.

Now, I'm not suggesting that there are any physiological benefits to a derived from smoking. Nor am I disputting the body of evidence linking CIGARETTE SMOKING WITH EVERYTHING FROM CORN BLIGHT TO W.C. Fields' favorite disease, Mogo on the Gagogo.

And I do wish the tobacco companies would stop pretending that it's all going to blow over, and would get busy solving the problem instead of insisting it doesn't exist.

However, evidence of causal relationships between not smoking and rudeness is indisputable. And the churlish behavior of those who don't smoke seems to stem from their fear that sitting next to, or even near, one of us smokers on a plane, in a restaurant, in the same building, for God's sake, will smite them with an instant "contact carcinoma."

One can't help wondering just where all this will take us, particularly if we non-drinkers should decide no more of this nice guy business and turn belligerent ourselves.

Until now, we've not only urged you to feel free to indulge your peculiar little habit, we've served you the stuff in our homes. If perchance you manage to get yourself overserved. I'll remove myself from your presence, rather than insist that it be the other way around.

Can anyone tell me when a nondrinker sputtered in some restaurant, "Make those people move; they're drinking!"? Or some passenger insisted that everbody return to the gate, screeching, "There are people drinking on this airplane!"?

Paradoxically, while evidence is incomplete as to whether your proximity to my smoke will expose you to anything more serious than a terminal tantrum, the fact that your drinking can make you a real menace to society capable of killing and maiming is incontrovertible.

How does it grab you to know that 50 percent of all traffic fatalities involve drinking?

So do about half the homicides in this country.

These facts are based on hard evidence, and are not confined to drunks or alcoholics -- just people who've been drinking , who've stopped off for a couple of shooters, a pop or two. People who, just possibly, have had "one too many."

And you're worried about my smoke?

I'll tell you what the world's going to be like when we non-drinkers take up the cause of self-righteous intolerance that up to now had been the exclusive province of non-smokers.

As you present yourself to the maitre d' at your favorite restaurant, he'll ask: "Will you be drinking?"

"Yes, we will."

"I'm sorry; we have no tables in the drinking section at the moment."

As you check in at the airport, you'll be asked: "Drinking or non-drinking?"

"Drinking."

"Sorry, all the drinking seats are gone."

Or the flip side: "Drinking or non-drinking?"

"Non-drinking."

I have fun as I fantasize this. The airline guy calls over some poor soul, suffering one of the Great Hangovers of Our Time, afraid to fly and held together only by the thought of the succor waiting in those two-ounce miniatures.And the airline guy says, "I'm sorry sir. Your seat will not be in the drinking section after all. We've had to pre-empt it for this gentleman who doesn't drink. . ."

I can hardly wait to have some imbiber join my group at a party so I can take the glass from his -- or her -- hand, and cheerfully pour the wretched stuff out.

The abuse I've been subjected to will all be worthwhile as I sit on some airplane and watch Ellen Goodman glumly trudge by on her way to the back of the plane with the rest of the boozers.

I'll figure out some way to get to know Dr. Art Ulene so we can invite him and his wife to our place and I'll be able to say, "You want a what! A drink? Well, all right, but you'll have to go out in the hall to drink it. Surely you don't mind. . ."

We non-drinkers, so patient and tolerant of the failings and foibles of our fellow mortals for so long, are ready to demonstrate that we can also be rude, inconsiderate and remorseless in our determination to see that others conform to our idea of what the world ought to be like.

One day -- and soon, I fear -- some non-drinking smoker is going to punch out some non-smoking drinker. Admittedly, it could happen the other way around, and some restaurant or the cabin of some airplane (probably an Eastern shuttle) is going to look like the third day at Gettysburg.

It may be that there was the suggestion of a solution in a story I saw buried back by the hemorrhoid ads; it may have offered a glimmer of hope for peace in our time.

Lufthansa, in a Solomon-like move, has divided its airplanes down the middle -- smokers on one side, non-smokers on the other. Simple, huh?

In fact, I'd like to propose right now that airplanes, restaurants and other public places to be similarly bisected, beginning immediately: smokers on one side, drinkers on the other. To demonstrate that we non-drinkers are, indeed, more tolerant, I'll throw in elevators. drinking on elevators will be permitted, but smoking won't; how's that for being fair?

Of course, it'll be difficult for those who both drink and smoke; maybe they'll have to squat in the aisle to yield to their cross-addiction. Or it might be that there could be special sections for them, near the kitchen in restaurants, back by the tail in airplanes. It might be inconvenient for them, but that's just tough!

They're the menace to us God-fearing folk -- the weaklings and moral lepers amoung us -- and I say the hell with them.