In exacting concessions from a beleaguered government by denying gasoline and fresh produce to citizens, the independent truckers have proved the effectiveness of "paraterrorism." Para-terrorism is terrorism without violence; it differs from the genuine article only in the means of coercion -- a smudgy distinction since, as has happened with some of the truckers, para-terrorism often degenerates into violence.

Terrorist use bombs and indiscriminate murder to intimidate the majority in an effort to impose their demands, veiws or prejudices. Para-terrorists pursue the same objective by harassing the public in less extreme ways -- disrupting freedom of movement, denying essential services or imposing economic hardship. The para-terrorist undertakes to stop the Concorde from landing at Kennedy Airport by creating traffic jams that deny other Americans use of the highways. Para-terrorist air controllers, angered at the termination of their overseas junkets, compel thousands of captive passengers to waste irreplaceable hours circling over airports. Anti-nuclear para-terrorists try to impose their own anti-energy policy by interfering with the construction of reactors -- blocking roadways and sabotaging equipment.

Though they differ in method, terrorists and para-terrorists share the same objective: By outraging the public, each group seeks to impose its will in disregard of constitutional processes. In this hypersensitive age, government hesitates to respond with force even though such tactics have no constitutional sanction; while the First Amendment protects the right of citizens to assemble peacefully and petition for a redress of grievances, it certainly does not authorize blocking highways or in any way interfering with the rights of others.

Peaceful protest, as guaranteed by the First Amendment, is a precious heritage, as the black demonstrations of the 1960s clearly showed. They made their point precisely because they avoided trespass on the rights of others. Yet, since protest is precious, it should be used sparingly -- only when normal processes fail. It can be demanded and trivialized by overuse. Much so-called protest today is trendy and routine -- a response to whim and prejudice disdainful of the will of the majority. Some individuals are so convinced of their unique wisdom and virture that, whenever they see our established democratic institutions reaching even the least consequential decision that contravenes their own preconceptions, they change the venue to the streets. Whatever the issue, they can easily enlist fervent colleagues. Protesting can be fun -- particularly if the weather is good and the photographers show up on schedule.

Though the participants often know little about the implications of their high-decibel demands, placard-carrying and chanting now have a raison d'etre of their own. Even when -- which is most of the time -- the protesters cannot seriously believe that the noise they are making will in any perceptible way affect the conditions they are deploring, they can still find self-gratification in the vocal and visual expression of their views. Such demonstrations are like jogging. If jogging produces a physical glow, demonstrating produces a glow of righteousness. Moreover, it gets people outdoors and carrying those heavy placards exercises at least a few muscles.

Still, our institutions may be damaged if protest becomes too automatic. The graffiti on placards is rarely the reasoned affirmation of a carefully considered position but more often the overcut catch phrase, while the mindless chanting of slogans -- reminiscent of disco music -- is not argument but mass incantation. Carried too far, the practice can weaken our constitutional system. We do, after all, have established means for reaching national decisions -- a Constitution and laws; judicial, legislative and executive branches of government charged with expressing and carrying out the majority public will, as well as an elaborate appeal procedure. The system assumes that the citizen will normally accept the results of these orderly procedures; there is no right of individual -- or even collective -- nullification.

Perhaps the current fad -- like so many other evils -- should be blamed on the Vietnam period. Then the directing geniuses of many universities failed to defend their institutions against a handful of pubescent Robespierres who destroyed property, disrupted education and even manhandled a few deans. But the Sixties generation, now grown up, has presumably put its youthful excesses behind it.

A much more obvious culprit is television, which promotes demonstrations by encouraging exhibitionists and making monentary heroes of limited-liability martyrs [almost no one actually goes to jail]. It exaggerates the drama of protest, glorifying the prototypical folk hero [the little man] who stubbornly frustrates the venal government bureaucrats or gallantly prevents the wicked mining company from augmenting the country's falling energy supplies by opening a new coal mine for which -- after three years of effort -- it has finally obtained the requisite official permits. Thus the television screen gives even local demonstrations [with a few placards and only one country music yodeler] a spurious legitimacy, as though protests were a normal institutional part of the process of public decision.

So, if you do not like a court ruling or an act of Congress or state legislature, no matter. Just raise hell in the streets. If the resulting mob excitement leads to para-terrorism, you can make life miserable for you countrymen. If the lunatic element on your side moves beyond para-terrorism to the real thing by unleashing its shotguns and rifles, too bad! You will probably get your way, just as the truckers seem to be doing.

But that's a far cry from democracy and the rule of law.