In The Killer Angels, Michael Saara’s novel about the battle of Gettysburg, there is a character named Colonel Arthur Fremantle, a British military observer attached to the Confederate forces. In part a comic figure, Fremantle is perpetually perplexed by Americans in general and Southerners in particular, and he painfully worries himself and others with his seldom-very-acute perceptions. One thing he can’t understand is why all the Southerners he meets arc always so polite, and when he finally figures it out, he explains his discovery to General Lewis Armistead, who later recounts it to his colleagues. “That Fremantle is kind of funny,” says Armistead. “He said that we Southerners were the most polite people he’d ever met, but then he noticed we all of us carry guns all the time, wherever we went, and he figured that maybe that was why.”

For once, Colonel Fremantle may have hit upon an important truth, one that pertains not only to the antebellum South but also to human society in general. Armed societies are courteous societies, and many of history’s most heavily armed social orders besides the Old South—those of the ancient Greeks, medieval European knights, Japanese Samurai, Renaissance courtiers, and barely literate cowboys on the American frontier—have also been noted for the elaborate rituals of courtesy and chivalry they practiced. The word “chivalry” itself, now a synonym for the old-fashioned style of deportment at which the emancipated strumpets of President Clinton’s Cabinet and household snort, derives from the code of the human battle tanks that rode horseback in the Middle Ages. The reason for the relationship between good weapons and common courtesy ought to be clear. With just about everyone you meet clanking a sword or packing a pistol, you’d better mind your manners, and your manners had better be highly formalized in clearly defined, normative patterns of conduct that leave no doubt about the benevolence of your intentions and the innocence of your behavior.

The converse also appears to be true. The society of late 20th-century America is perhaps the first in human history where most grown men do not routinely bear arms on their persons and boys are not regularly raised from childhood to learn skill in the use of some kind of weapon, either for community or personal defense—club or spear, broadsword or longbow, rifle or Bowie knife. Ours also happens to be one of the rudest and crudest societies in history, having jubilantly swept most of the etiquette of speech, table, dress, hospitality, regard for fairness, deference to authority, and the relations of male and female and child and elder under the fraying and filthy carpet of politically convenient illusions. With little fear of physical reprisal, Americans can be as loud, gross, disrespectful, pushy, and negligent as they please, Yet if more people carried rapiers at their belts or revolvers on their hips, it’s a fair bet you’d be able to go to a movie and enjoy the dialogue from the screen without having to endure the small talk, family gossip, and assorted bodily noises that many theater audiences these days regularly emit.

The prospect of a society in which you can put a bullet between the eyes of drivers who grab a parking space for which you’ve been waiting or meet under the oaks at dawn characters who bray sexual and scatological slang in the hearing of your wife and children in restaurants will no doubt strike most Americans today as brutal, but the fact is that that is precisely how most societies in human history have disciplined themselves. For the most part, of course, bloodshed over such slights did not occur, because the slights themselves did not take place and because most people knew the price they might have to pay for indulging in the ethic of Me First and What’s Yours Is Negotiable. Today, discourtesy is commonplace precisely because there is no price to pay for it. Habitual rudeness is too trivial a disruption of the social bond for even the ubiquitous American megastate to notice or control, and if it becomes too unbearable for the dwindling number of Americans who arc repelled by it to stomach, they simply avoid locations where they’re likely to encounter it. They move to the suburbs, which they perhaps imagine are the last redoubts of safety and civility, places where they won’t have to fight to defend themselves or the way of life they prefer and where they can rely on somebody else to fight for them.

But in the last year or so, there have been indications that even that escape fantasy is being denied to Middle Americans as criminals and their close predecessors on the evolutionary tree of incivility, just plain boors, pursue them beyond the city limits. Last summer in suburban Maryland, a woman who was driving her preschool child to a daycare center was kidnapped and murdered by two worthies from the District of Columbia. They pushed her out of her car and dragged her for nearly a mile and then pitched the baby out of the moving vehicle. This sort of crime is fairly common in the District itself, but the woman’s neighbors in Howard County weren’t used to it. “One of the things the real estate agent said,” a neighbor told the Washington Times soon after, “was that Howard County has the lowest crime rate and that this area has the lowest rate of all.” Virginian suburbanites expressed similar sentiments in the aftermath of random killings by a wandering lunatic near CIA headquarters during the height of rush hour earlier this year in upscale McLean, Virginia. “I moved out here to be safe,” whimpered a local clergyman to the Washington Post the day after the shootings. “Now I can’t even drive in the suburbs.”

The emergence of routine rudeness and discourtesy and the eruption of serious crime in suburbs as well as cities are both part of the same pattern of social and civil decomposition that the United States is enduring, and the removal of force as a social control on both of them is perhaps the major underlying reason for their appearance. “Disguise it how you will,” wrote the Victorian conservative theorist and lawyer Fitzjames Stephen, “it is force in one shape or another which determines the relations between human beings.” Stephen regarded force as the foundation not only of law and government but also of social relationships, and he would have understood what is happening in the United States today as quickly and clearly as those police officers who have to live—and die—with it. Donald Murray, president of the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, told the Times in the wake of the Maryland killing last year that “the criminal justice system has gone soft. Nobody has the guts to pull the lever on the electric chair. Instead, they tolerate increased violence, and every year the murder rate goes up.”

Actually, Americans and even their lawmakers are increasingly beginning to rediscover the inverse relationship between the level of force available and social disorder, but unlike Stephen they persist in the delusion that force belongs only to and in the state and particularly in the federal government. Lawmakers understand the use of force at least to the degree that they know it’s a good idea to pretend to support more of it as a means of controlling crime.

Thus, for the last couple of years a federal “crime control” bill has been bouncing around Congress that promises to inflict capital punishment for no less than 51 different offenses. By voting for it and bragging about it, congressmen can boast to their constituents of how draconian they are on criminals, though when you examine the bill’s provisions closely you will find that the crimes for which a convict can be hailed to the scaffold include such offenses as treason, espionage, and genocide. Death is a reasonable penalty for those who commit any or all of these, but executing those convicted of them does nothing to control the sorts of crimes most Americans have reason to fear. No one is really afraid of being mugged by Julius Rosenberg or raped in the parking lot by Pol Pot. In fact, most of the rest of the bill’s sanguinary language merely protects federal bureaucrats and congressmen, not the ordinary citizen, by inflicting death on the killers of just about every professional political parasite from visiting dignitaries of foreign countries to egg inspectors in the Department of Agriculture.

Whenever using more force as punishment or deterrent is discussed these days, it is almost always in terms of how to enhance the power of the megastate itself and to strip average Americans of whatever means of force they have left to protect themselves; it never involves the removal of political and legal restraints on the use of force by social authorities. Gun control and expansion of the number of policemen, prosecutors, and prisons are among the favorite gimmicks advanced by what preens itself as the “tough on crooks” school, and of course our friends the neoconservatives are in the forefront of peddling its doctrine. The original plans of “drug czar” Bill Bennett for the Bush administration’s much ballyhooed “war on drugs” were the prototype for a veritably Napoleonic expansion of federal power that would have placed Mr. Bennett at the center of an iron web of national law enforcement, international diplomacy, the coordination of military forces, and the dispensation of billions of dollars to federal, local, and state police, educators, rehabilitators, and therapists. President Bush, perhaps sensing the implicit coup d’etat the drug czar was trying to pull on him and the nation, wisely gutted most of it, and Mr. Bennett, his fun spoiled, eventually announced a tremendous but intangible victory in the war on drugs and fled the administration shortly after.

But the drug czar’s visions of a vastly expanded federal role in law enforcement live on in the neoconservative mind. Last year, just after the Los Angeles riots, Terry Eastland, Mr. Bennett’s one-time boon companion, mouthpiece, and ghostwriter, unbosomed himself of a brainstorm for further enlargement of federal crime control. Complaining that Lyndon Johnson’s response to the Watts riot of 1965 hadn’t included enough federal law enforcement, Mr. Eastland wrote that Johnson “believed law enforcement should remain a local matter. Conservatives have long believed that too, but Mr. Bush will also make a mistake if he rejects the need for a deeper federal law enforcement presence in the nation’s inner cities.” While neoconservatives shudder at the word “nationalism” when it refers to an America First foreign policy and trade doctrine, they smack their lips with glee when the term can be drafted to bolster federal power and implement Big Government conservatism. “Nationalism must prevail when the most fundamental right of all—to self-preservation—can no longer be secured by local authorities,” intoned Mr. Eastland.

Yet the lesson of the experience of the last 60 years or so of federal involvement in law enforcement is that there is far too much of it. Think, for a moment, of the federal agencies already engaged in police work; the FBI is the most obvious, but there is also the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Internal Revenue Service, the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Border Patrol, the U.S. Marshals Service, the Secret Service, the U.S. Customs Service, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, the Bureau of Prisons, and the inspectors for the U.S. Postal Service, in addition to the whole apparatus of the military police and criminal investigation services of the Armed Forces, not to mention divers and sundry interagency task forces, federal prosecutors, judges, court officials of one kind or another, and the quietly enlarging role of the Armed Forces themselves and the CIA in enforcing the drug laws. Does anyone other than enthusiasts of reruns of The Untouchables imagine for a second that this labyrinth of bureaucracies has made American society any safer than it was before any of them existed?

Moreover, since the “incorporation doctrine” was foisted off on the legal system, the federal courts have presided over what is nothing less than a national revolution in criminal law whereby every unsolicited confession of a streetcorner grifter and every poke of a policeman’s nightstick in the ribs of a pimp or a pusher yields yet another new revelation of a hitherto latent meaning of the Bill of Rights. By slyly reshaping the Constitution’s limitations of federal power into restrictions on state and local authority, the courts have managed to wreck most of what remains of effective local law enforcement in the country and to centralize and censor its commonsense procedures. What the courts have been unable to reach with their legal fictions has been mopped up by affirmative-action programs that mandate the hiring of unqualified minorities and women as policemen and prevent the promotion of qualified officers.

Nor will federalizing (more properly, nationalizing) law enforcement stop in the new age of Mr. Clinton and his policy harem of Hillary, Zoe, Kimba, Donna, and/or Janet. It took the new President neariy the whole of the first month of his administration to locate an Attorney General who both supported him and was also sufficiently square with the law to pass the scrutiny of the cheekbouncers, secret-leakers, plagiarists, and woman-drowners on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and when he finally discovered the incumbent Ms. Reno, she at once announced that her first priority of business as the nation’s top gangbuster would be the welfare of children. Mr. Clinton himself probably knows no more about law enforcement than any other public responsibility, and he probably cares about it even less than he does for those things he may know something about, but he too went through the charade of “tough on crooks” earlier this year when he vowed to push for the hiring (largely with federal funds) of yet another 100,000 policemen to put on the nation’s streets even as he also promised to sign more federal handgun legislation.

That, in a nutshell, is the longstanding liberal-neoconservative law-enforcement strategy; disarm the citizens and swell the power of the federal leviathan. It has nothing to do with protecting Americans from criminals or punishing the criminals themselves, let alone with restoring to the communities and citizenry the force they naturally need and ought to have to protect themselves. It has everything to do with enhancing the power of those who can expect to gain from an enlarged but largely incompetent federal law-enforcement apparat and making certain no one outside the federal megastate and the professional police agencies that profit from it has any power at all. The nationalization of law enforcement, even when it claims to be “tough on crooks,” is a fraud that converts local public authorities into vestigial organs of the megastate and robs social institutions of the force that disciplines society.

From at least the days when Franklin Roosevelt’s first Attorney General, Homer Cummings, barnstormed about the country stumping for what he variously called a “national police force,” an “American Scotland Yard,” a “super police force,” and, on one occasion, a “Federal Army of Justice” to wage his “war on crime,” the grand design of the architects of the managerial state has been to replace what they view as the “chaos” and “backwardness” of local and state police departments with the scientifically planned, humanely progressive, and fashionably therapeutic experimentation of law enforcement administered from the purportedly cleaner corridors of Washington. Cops who know their beats and keep the peace on them, and sheriffs who can tell the difference between local ne’er-do-wells and dangerous criminals, arc supposed to yield to over-educated young ladies with master’s degrees in womanology.

But law enforcement, like most of the other social functions Washington claims to be able to perform better than anyone else, is really not a very complicated matter. Most societies in history have never had much of a problem with controlling criminals, and they’ve never needed science, therapy, special training and task forces, centralized bureaucracies, or indeed very many cops to deal properly and speedily with killers, thieves, and rapists. What they needed and what they had at hand that we do not have was precisely the force that “in one shape or another . . . determines the relations between human beings” and the will to make use of it. If Americans really want to take back their streets, their cities, and their suburbs and to teach some manners to the clods and crooks that are pushing them out of their theaters, parking lots, shopping malls, and restaurants, a little force and the will to use it are all they need to accomplish the task.