To fight soaring crime, President Clinton has proposed a national police corps—an idea some find ominous. “Is Clinton paving the way to a police state?” a friend asked me in hushed tones. I dismissed his fears. Over the years, I’ve run into lots of semiparanoid folks who detect conspiracies everywhere.

But the thought lingered in my mind. It could happen here in America—not from anything Clinton does, but from what we do to ourselves.

As I write, troops in camouflage uniforms are patrolling the beaches of Puerto Rico, M-16s in hand as they weave through crowds of children playing in the sand. No, this is not Lebanon, it is an American territory. The National Guard was called in as an emergency response to skyrocketing crime. But after several months, they are still on the streets, and civil-rights leaders warn that using the military for police work could be “a dangerous step toward the militarization of a democratic society.”

The same things could happen anywhere. Crime rates are soaring in every major city. There are areas so dangerous that police officers no longer walk the beat but cruise the neighborhood behind the locked doors of their patrol cars. And as civil disorder spreads, governments inevitably resort to military might.

A hundred years ago, Lord Acton foresaw the process leading to a police state. He is best known for the dictum memorized by civics students that power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. But few students know how Acton proposed to avoid absolute power: through religion. The Christian religion, he argued, “creates and strengthens the notion of duty.” It creates an invisible bond of duty that yokes every citizen. It gives a reason to deny self-interest, obey laws that are irksome, ...

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