WE'RE GETTING EDGY about terrorism. In a pique of understandable frustration, Secretary of State George Shultz has implored the American public to support retaliatory or even preemptive military actions against international terrorism -- whether the perpetrators are known or presumed and even if innocent lives may be at risk. Last week, The Washington Post reported that the Pentagon had actually drawn up plans before Thanksgiving for a bombing raid in Lebanon to retaliate if threatened terrorist attacks against the U.S. or British embassies in Beirut had actually occurred.

In certain cases, the measured use of force may be justified. But the United States cannot afford to react like Israel, a small, beleaguered state which stands poised at the trigger to respond in kind for every attack.

No terrorist truly expects that a bombing or an assassination will bring the United States to its knees. The real target is us, the public. The terrorist aims to undermine our confidence in government and in our elected officials. Terrorist acts create public and media demands for government action. That action can sacrifice more than we can afford. We must combat the McCarthy-era tendency to reach for simplistic solutions that turn out to be constitutionally corrosive.

Consider the administration's proposed anti-terrorism legislation recently submitted to the Congress. Parts of the package are innocuous, largely because they are also irrelevant to any long-term solution.

But at least one proposal is truly dangerous: a bill to grant the secretary of state sole authority to brand groups and nations as "terrorist" (without any meaningful definition of the term) and to provide for criminal punishment of Americans involved with those groups or nations. Happily, Congress has rejected this administration proposal to formalize guilt by association.

Or consider Attorney General-designate Edwin Meese's recent suggestion that we abolish the rules excluding use of illegally obtained evidence in trials. If this suggestion is made at a time of relative tranquility, what star chamber powers and authorities will be sought under conditions of great tension?

We must be careful as well to assess the potential political and constitutional costs of undercover or clandestine counterterrorist activities. Given our track record, it is not clear that we can keep such operations secret in the first place. More importantly we do not seem to have the capability to execute these kinds of operations successfully or to deal with the consequences of failure.

What, for example, might have ensued had we retaliated against Syria for its support of those responsible for massacre of the Marines in Beirut? "Successful" retaliation could have taken the form of the assassination of the Syrian officials who would have provided the planning and logistical support. It is unlikely that such a reprisal would have stimulated any great international furor -- but many at home would find this response repugnant.

Suppose the hit team had failed: some of our elite forces would have been caught, publicly humiliated, tried and hanged. If we then did nothing, we would have appeared politically and militarily impotent. If we had come back with an overt military reaction, we would have created an unwanted confrontation with Syria and offered ourselves as a target to the Soviet Union.

Covert operations have other risks. Their very secrecy can open the door to unacceptable behavior -- recall the recent central American "how-to" assassination manual, or the mining of Nicaraguan harbors. We clearly undermine our position against international terrorism when we can be accused -- correctly -- of engaging in thctics of terror ourselves. The notion that their terrorism is automatically immoral and that our counterterrorism is automatically moral will not stand much scrutiny.

There is another danger: certain counterterrorism policies may hasten the migration of terrorism to our shores. There has been, until our troubles with Iran, little real damage to U.S. interests from Islamic terrorists. Some even believe in the existence of an unspoken agreement with the Palestine Liberation Organization placing the United States off-limits to their activities. An abrupt shift to aggressive military tactics by the United States could shatter this fragile immunity and provoke retaliation of the ugliest kind.

A linkage cannot be dismissed between Islamic extremists and indigenous American terror organizations like the American-based Puerto Rican separatist organization, the FALN, which has ties to the PLO and Libya, the Black Liberation Army, which has ties to Iran and Libya, and, in the past, the Weather Underground, which had ties to the PLO. Law enforcement authorities are also concerned about concentrations of pro- Khomeini Iranians students throughout the country but especially in New York and Los Angeles who can provide the needed logistical support and safe haven for foreign terrofists operating here. Because of these concerns, the United States cannot afford to attract, inadvertently and without considering these implications, a succession of painful attacks on our unprepared home ground.

Any workable counterterrorism strategy must recognize that the days are over when terrorism was simply a series of isolated instances of politically-inspired violence. Terrorism is now increasingly a mercenary profession, and those who orchestrate and support and protect the professionals without exposing themselves directly in the process are more and more often proven to be sovereign nations hostile to the United States

The knowledge that states rather than individuals are the most likely sponsors of major terror events should have profound implications for our threat assessment and response calculations. Attacks that might have been beyond the scope of a radical political organization are certainly within the grasp of the national intelligence aparatus of an unfriendly state. New tactics of terror will evolve in response to emerging capabilities and governmental countermeasures. Our task is not only to thwart today's terrorist threat but to prepare against future avenues of attack.

The terrorist of today and tomorrow can choose from a variety of approaches -- assassinations of world leaders; adaptation of the big truck bombings to airplanes; small chemical or radiological attacks that deny access to key facilities, and attacks on economic lifelines of electric power grids, transportation arteries, oil and natural gas pipelines and the electronic communications and data networks.

We should expect such attacks on our soft technological underbelly. Since 1970, more than 200 attacks have been made against electrical utilities from California to Puerto Rico, from France to the Philippines. Groups as diverse as the Shining Path in Peru, the ETA in Spain and the New World Liberation in the United States have all recognized and targeted one of the Achilles heels of western civilization.

Electrical power outages can spread uncontrollably and last for extended periods. Pipelines are so interconnected that they are catastrophically vulnerable to small, pinpointed attacks on pumping stations and control centers. We transmit virtually all the economic business of the Western world over unprotected and irreplaceable computer communications circuits. The full range of our vulnerability to attack -- or even to accident -- is just beginning to be explored.

The problem of countering terrorism is not new. The United States has been engaged in the business at least over the past three administrations, but our responses have varied from paranoia to apathy with little, if any, real progress.

We need to develop the contingency plans, procedures, logistics, and technologies to support the president in advance of crisis -- whether natural, accidental, or induced. We cannot continue to rely on the pressure of panic to produce a well thought-out range of policy and tactical options.

It is unseemly to bemoan our vulnerability to terrorist attack while doing so little to shore up our defenses. The September attack against our embassy in Beirut succeeded because we had not learned from previous errors -- crude barriers like the sand-filled dump trucks today around the Capitol would have blocked the attacker. We have been slow to learn how to protect ourselves against the simplest modes of attack even when the targets are clearly identified in advance. A paucity of resources, particularly intellectual, has been devoted to the problem.

Although some of the best minds in the nation work on national security, few specialize in counterrorism policy. We spend over $300 billion a year on defense, yet remain embarassingly vulnerable to terrorist activity.

The administration has taken some useful steps in the counterterrorism area. The special situation group, under the direction of the vice president, can now become much more than a reactive organization and begin to do the substantive and creative planning in the areas of terrorism and unconventional warfare. The vice president has a golden opportunity to oversee the effort of putting a new crisis management apparatus in place.

We must stop thinking in terms of tactics and start thinking in terms of long-term strategies. There are no silver bullets, no single, all-encompassing solutions. The use of violence to prevent or punish violence is no panacea. Terrorism is a dynamic phenomenon; by the time we have figured out how to counter today's threat, the tactics, groups and targets may all have changed, creating an entirely different set of problems.

The United States cannot afford to rely on counterterrorism policies less sophisticated than the threats with which they must cope. We need to orchestrate a comprehensive program of physical security that limits access to important installations and protects key officials. We need better intelligence. We need the ability to use force covertly or overtly -- and the discipline to use it sparingly. We need crisis management machinery that can cope with events far more varied and serious than those we have experienced to date.

The United States may face insidious and relentless forms of unconventional warfare. Obviously we cannot prepare for every contingency. Some painful episodes simply cannot be avoided. Yet we need not provide terrorists with disproportionate leverage when a little foresight can save us considerable pain. Thus, although we cannot protect every mile of electric power line, we canand should stockpile large transformers that are imported from abroad. Without such a stockpile, terrorists could attack a few key nodes in the United States and blacken large regions of the country for weeks to months. Similarly, we should stockpile pumps for natural gas transmission lines. Steps like these can reduce our vulnerability to devastating terrorist attack without taking Draconian measures that destroy our own civil liberties and freedoms.

In the final analysis, our greatest protection from attack is not violent preemption but substantive knowledge, imaginative planning and well-prepared government leadership. What we seldom recognize is that the image of a forewarned nation is itself a powerful shield against attack. We need to develop and organize our visible and invisible resources -- and then exercise them to prove to the terrorists and their supporters that we are able and willing to defend ourselves without compromising ur honor and our ideals.