THE former executive editor of the New York Times, A.M. Rosenthal, is a liberal who is saying some things that should be said about the attitude of liberal intellectuals toward the drug problem. ``Strangely,'' he writes in one of his regular Times columns, ``American intellectuals who would suffer most from a repressive attitude toward civil liberties, and who almost instinctively get involved in social causes, edge away from the national drug problem.
``The country hears about drugs from its leading writers, academics, and artists occasionally, but almost never with real passion and only until they turn again to issues that obviously mean more to them: abortion, feminism, national security, foreign affairs, politics.''
Mr. Rosenthal's comments remind me of an attitude among liberals that I've noted over the years: how little interest they express in government efforts to stamp out organized crime. Organized crime is a terrible burden on our society. Yet the liberals' focus seems to be elsewhere - except when they may feel that the civil liberties of an accused need protection. On the liberals' preoccupation with the rights of the accused, Rosenthal has this to say:
``The professional civil liberties people are no great help. They give the impression of caring only about getting drug hustlers back on the streets as quickly as possible.
``They have failed to convince the public that they are concerned about the victim as well as the pusher. Since the victim is society, they have managed to give civil liberties a bad name. If you can do that in a liberal city like New York, don't blame the hard hats - only yourself.''
The American Civil Liberties Union did little to change the impression that its interests are with the accused - not the victims - when it persuaded a federal judge to stop a Washington, D.C., 11-p.m.-to-5-a.m. curfew from going into effect. The rationale for this blockage was that the law, which would have permitted police to direct youths under the age of 18 to move or go home, raised ``serious constitutional claims'' for juveniles.
Here was a city that was becoming known as the ``murder capital'' of the nation trying to take steps that would stop the carnage. Perhaps the law was unenforceable: Perhaps there weren't enough police to get the job done. Also, it was arguable that those youngsters who were dealing or using drugs wouldn't be stopped by a curfew.
Yet a curfew might well keep youngsters off the street and away from stray bullets when a drug-related shooting occurred. And a law like this might well reinforce the authority of parents in keeping their youngsters home at night - and away from getting involved in drugs.
Isn't anyone listening to the results of the last presidential election? George Bush and the Republicans made it abundantly clear that they were tired of seeing the victims of crimes kicked around and the criminals' rights fought for by the ``liberals'' (translated, Democrats).
Perhaps the Republicans were unfair in so depicting their opposition. Maybe there was demagoguery. Doubtless there was overstatement.
But Mr. Bush and his campaign leaders clearly reached out effectively to a vast number of voters who were terribly distressed by the mounting drug and crime problem and how it was destroying their children and their communities.
Bush won the election because voters, satisfied with the economy and their own lot, voted for continuity in the White House. But he also won because during this epidemic of drug-related crimes, just about everyone has become a victim or has a child who is a victim or knows someone who is a victim. And just about everyone, too, knows of instances when a criminal has gotten off easy and a victim hasn't been given a fair shake.
Now back once more to Rosenthal's observations about liberal intellectuals: ``Some of them are contemptuous of `drug-war talk,''' he writes. ``Others think it is a problem that can only be solved by legalization. That is approximately like legalizing cheap pistols made specially to fit the hands of little children. Others simply do not give enough of a damn to write or talk about it.''
It's not that I don't believe in the protection of civil liberties for all Americans. I thank God for the constitutional safeguards of those liberties. And we should be constantly vigilant that these liberties not be infringed.
But constitutionally, we do permit certain people under prescribed circumstances to infringe on these liberties. We give these powers to the police in order that they be given the freedom of action they need to protect us.
We must guard against police excesses and police invasion of individual freedoms. But the public has clearly decided that if giving up a little of that freedom (as with a curfew) is necessary to help the victims of this world - then they are ready to make this concession to the current frightening realities.