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Sinful governments

Books | History of statecraft is strewn with evidence of original sin

Issue: "Glamorizing Drugs," Nov. 9, 1996

It is a curious phenomenon: Despite living in mankind's deadliest century, some people still have trouble believing in the existence of sin. Yet what better symbol of evil is there than Auschwitz, a town founded in 1270 and turned into the most notorious of Nazi Germany's death camps nearly seven centuries later?

Historians Dwork and Van Pelt have produced a haunting book that tracks Auschwitz's mundane beginnings through its ghastly end. An estimated 1.2 million people died here, victims of a state that acted as if it were God. And this is precisely how the Nazis, from Adolf Hitler to the lowliest camp guard, thought of themselves. Conclude Ms. Dwork and Mr. Van Pelt, the "process of selection is the core and moral nadir of the horror of the Holocaust--the selection, and not the gas chambers and crematoria. The Germans and their allies had arrogated to themselves the power to decide who would live and who would die."

Regrettably, governments wrecking the lives of the innocent is not a phenomenon restricted to other nations. During World War II the United States sent more than 110,000 people of Japanese descent to detention camps. Whispered Silences, too, is an unsettling book. The Roosevelt administration did not round up German- and Italian-Americans; a president supposedly so dedicated to humanitarian liberalism chose to keep the Japanese-Americans incarcerated past the 1944 election, despite the steadily vanishing Japanese threat to the United States. Historian Okihiro and photographer Myers tell the story of the government's 10 camps, which ranged from California deserts to Arkansas swamps, and the people who filled them. "We will never forget as long as the haunting memories of lonely desert gravesites pursue us still," concludes Mr. Okihiro.

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One cannot count on the federal government's benevolence even today. The Clinton administration, also notable for its humanitarian rhetoric, has implemented a consistent policy of jackboot liberalism--police-state tactics against opponents of left-wing universalism, whether they're the Branch Davidians or activists protesting federal housing projects. In Above the Law, investigative reporter Burnham spins a tale that should worry conservative and liberal alike: a Justice Department committed to wiretapping more and more average citizens but persistently unwilling to investigate presidential wrongdoing; a bureaucracy that runs without effective oversight, irrespective of its manifold abuses, failures, and scandals. Mr. Burnham's critique is scathing but nonpartisan; Clinton appointees Louis Freeh and Janet Reno take their share of lumps.

That effective law enforcement is necessary is evident from Body Count. Anyone who is feeling complacent about the problem of crime should read it. Mssrs. Bennett, DiIulio, and Walters write, "Recent downward trends in crime mask an alarming rise in teenage violence--and there are a lot more teenagers on the way. We may be experiencing the lull before the coming crime storm."

The authors do a good job of rebutting some of the usual liberal shibboleths about crime and pointing to the root cause of lawlessness: moral poverty. They underestimate the impact of the drug laws on crime and rather cavalierly ignore the cost of the prohibitionist policies that they promote despite their demonstrated, costly failure. Nevertheless, Body Count offers sober advice about a serious issue. And it demonstrates well that our greatest challenge is spiritual, not political: how to eliminate the moral poverty "of being without loving, capable, responsible adults who teach children right from wrong."

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