By all means, Americans should be alert to the increased threat of terrorism that results from the war in the Persian Gulf.

The trouble is that many Americans are overreacting, stocking up on gas masks and avoiding airline travel even in places where the danger of terrorist attacks is remote at best.Up to a point, it's easy to understand the fear. After all, the news media have been filled with reports of Saddam Hussein's threats, beefed-up security at airports and other public facilities, and a rash of bomb scares.

But there's a thin line between prudence and paranoia. Some people seem to be crossing it. To the extent that happens, the public can play into the hands of terrorists, whose main objective is to sap America's will by instilling fear.

To put the terrorist threat in perspective, keep in mind that the FBI has taken pains to say that it considers the risk of terrorism in the United States to be much lower than it is overseas. That's because Europe has much more porous borders and a larger population of recent immigrants who might aid terrorists.

Keep in mind, too, that the consensus of private experts is that the danger of terrorist attacks in the United States is quite small. So small that, in the estimation of David Charters of the Institute for Conflict Studies at the University of New Brunswick in Canada, the risks of being injured in a car accident or a street crime are far greater than of being the victim of a terrorist attack.

That means that air travel within the United States can still be considered reasonably safe. At the same time, some private security experts are advising their clients to postpone travel to the Mideast, Europe, Africa and Southeast Asia. For those who find it essential to travel to such present or potential trouble spots, a few precautions are in order:

- If possible, use airlines of countries that are neutral in the Mideast conflict.

- Don't carry identification that would link you with the U.S. government, the U.S. military or Jewish organizations.

- Register with the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate in the country you're visiting and ask for daily updates on security conditions.

Yes, it's always better to be safe than sorry. But there's still no need to slap on your helmet and flak jacket and dive into the nearest bunker.