Irony of ironies: Ronald Reagan, who used to hear that he was trigger-happy, is being asked by a furious public why he doesn't use force against terrorists.

"The country," says Rep. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.), "is hungry for retaliation."

The message is coming through in call-in shows, letters to the editor, headlights, yellow ribbons and angry outbursts against "those Arabs." Americans are fed up with terrorism. They want action. Take out the airport in Beirut. Bomb Tehran. Do something.

Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman (R-N.Y.) reports one major complaint among his constituents: Why isn't the government doing more?

When the hostages were seized in November 1979, Americans rallied behind President Jimmy Carter, prayed for the safe return of the hostages, prepared to wait. This time, Americans have no patience, even when it is advocated by Ronald Reagan.

They're angry with the Israelis for not coming across without being asked. They want the Israelis to turn over their more than 700 Shiite prisoners whose freedom the hijackers once said was the price of the release of some 40 Americans still being held in the back alleys of Beirut. Paradoxically, they are somewhat less angry with the president for refusing to ask the Israelis to "cave in" to the terrorists. More and more Americans are gathering under the hard-line banner of "no deals."

"The principle is inching out concern for the safety of the hostages," says Rep. Edward F. Feighan (D-Ohio), who fielded furious calls in his Cleveland office from people who feel civilization is crumbling under terrorist onslaughts in Japan, Germany, El Salvador and the skies over the Atlantic.

One of the more bitter aspects of the problem is that Reagan finds himself in confrontation with our only friend in the Middle East. Americans were astonished to hear Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin on ABC's "Nightline" angrily decoupling U.S. and Israeli interests and brusquely calling the hostages "an American problem -- the hostages are Americans . . . caught on board an airline that carries the U.S. flag."

Since then, Prime Minister Shimon Peres has made a soothing phone call to Secretary of State George P. Shultz and Israel has released 31 Arab prisoners. Washington and Jerusalem are insisting that the release has "no connection" with the hostages in Beirut.

Israel has a policy of never negotiating with terrorists but breached it rather severely with a lop-sided prisoner swap in April, trading 1,150 Palestinians for three Israeli soldiers.

Rabin, who has been fiercely criticized for the exchange, said defensively on "Nightline," "I didn't feel that I've got the moral right to tell these three soldiers, and the soldiers that might be sent in the future, to go to hell because of a certain principle."

That's what Reagan is facing. He must decide whether the lives of the hostages still being held must be put above all other considerations.

"There's no trick to getting the hostages home," Torricelli says. "The trick is to get them home without inciting further terrorism and endangering the lives of thousands of other Americans."

The president took the unusual step of canceling a vacation. Although he has tried to keep to his schedule, he apparently realized that chopping wood in the mountains would exceed "normalcy" right now.

He is being tested as never before in his presidency. The Shiites are baiting him, upping the ante, demanding that the U.S. fleet quit the eastern Mediterranean.

Rep. Stephen J. Solarz (D-N.Y.) says that the hijackers have much more in mind than the humiliation of a U.S. president and the capture of world attention. "They want to drive a wedge between us and Israel; they want to thwart a Middle East settlement."

At closed-door hearings on Capitol Hill, liberal Democrats, who spend their lives trying to frustrate Reagan's military adventurism, are howling for military action, offering the president, says one, "a blank check to use his better judgment."

Reagan cannot take reprisals while the hostages are at risk. He must endure calls for action he longs to heed. He keeps looking for a savior. When the plane was in Algiers, he issued a statement of total confidence in the government's ability to cope with the situation. When Shiite leader Nabih Berri took responsibility for the hostages, Reagan conferred on him power to solve the problem.

The only comfort Reagan may have is that if and when the hostages come home, he will have, for once, a consensus for any military action he proposes to take.