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Generically, what's the most brutal institution on the face of the Earth? If you said governments, go to the head of the class. If anyone is in doubt of that fact, he need only read "Death by Government," recently published by professor R.J. Rummel of the University of Hawaii's political science department.

So far this century, international wars and civil wars have taken about 39 million lives. But that's small in comparison to deliberate government murder. Since the beginning of this century, and keep in mind there are four years left, governments have murdered 170 million people, mostly their own citizens.The top government murderers are those most adored by America's campus leftists and their counterparts in the media and the political arena: the former Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China. Between 1917 and 1987, the Soviet Union, where even President Clinton traveled to protest against our involvement in Vietnam, murdered 62 million of its own citizens. Between 1949 and 1987, mostly under that leftist favorite Mao Tse-tung's rule, 35 million Chinese citizens were murdered by their own government.

Hitler's Nazis were pikers by comparison to the communists. They managed to exterminate about 21 million Jews, Slavs, Serbs, Czechs, Poles, Ukrainians and people they deemed misfits, such as homosexuals and the mentally ill.

Trailing badly behind the USSR, China and the Nazis, Japan murdered 6 million unarmed citizens in Asian countries they conquered during World War II. Many of the deaths included unspeakable barbarities like soldiers tossing an infant in the air so a comrade could catch it on his bayonet.

Lesser-known murdering governments include: Turkey, which between 1909 and 1918 murdered close to 2 million Armenians; the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, which caused 2 million Cambodians to lose their lives; Pakistan's government, which murdered 1.5 million people; and Tito's Yugoslavian government, which murdered a million citizens.

Rummel estimates that pre-20th century government murder, from the Christian Crusades and slavery of Africans to witch hunts and other episodes, totals about 133 million. Therefore, our century is clearly mankind's most brutal, and we might ask why.

Rummel gives the answer in his book's very first sentence, "Power kills; absolute power kills absolutely. . . . The more power a government has, the more it can act arbitrarily according to the whims and desires of the elite, and the more it will make war on others and murder its foreign and domestic subjects." That's the long, tragic, ugly story of government: the elite's use of government to forcibly impose its will on the masses.

You say, "Williams, you're not suggesting that the United States government has anything in common with these murderous regimes, are you?"

The answer is a clear no.

But the note of caution surfaces if you ask: Which way are we headed tiny steps at a time: toward more liberty or toward more government restrictions on our liberty?

The unambiguous answer is more government restrictions of our liberties.

Our government has massive power to do evil. Murderers like Josef Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Mao Tse-tung and Pol Pot would have loved to have the kind of information about its citizens that agencies like the Internal Revenue Service and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms have.

We should view our government the way we would a friendly, cuddly lion. Just because it's friendly and cuddly shouldn't blind us to the fact that it's still got teeth and claws.