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After tonight’s BCS championship game between Alabama and Notre Dame, Alabama coach Nick Saban begins to move across the field to shake hands with Brian Kelly, Notre Dame’s coach. It’s a post-game ritual people like to watch. A squad of beefy, fearsome looking troopers in navy blue surround Saban as he wades into the scrum of reporters who face him with their digital recorders. I don’t know what the troopers think the reporters might do to the coach, but if they are supposed to be bodyguards, they look the part. I’ve never seen that kind of protection before. Troopers generally appear in force only when there’s a disturbance of some kind on the field.

Then something happened that reminded me immediately of the two years I lived in China. One of the troopers lunged toward a couple of the reporters in front of Saban to shove them out of the way. That’s exactly the way the Chinese police behaved when they wanted to keep people back. Their uniformed presence wasn’t enough. They routinely used physical force, even though force wasn’t required.

More and more people say we live in a police state. Others say that’s an exaggeration. A college football game, with no hint of animosity or fan ugliness about, used to be the scene of good feelings, a celebration of American sports and the wholesomeness we could see in the faces of McCarron and Golson, the two quarterbacks who led their teams tonight. The coaches’ handshake exemplifies the ideals of sportsmanship the players bring to the field. Nick Saban and Brian Kelly never did shake hands, not on camera anyway. Instead we witness state troopers, big as NFL players and dressed to intimidate, push people around. The lunging gesture says, “We don’t like you and we want to let you know it.” Those guys are grim, they are scary, and they want you to know they will hurt you.

What’s going on here? We’ve already seen local police departments turned into paramilitary organizations, courtesy of the Department of Homeland Security’s generosity. Stadium storm troopers, SWAT teams and riot police look scarier than our Marines in Afghanistan. We saw these dark-suited goons beat peaceful Occupy protesters last year: beat them, handcuff them and haul them away to jail. Now they show up at our football games! What’s the rationale? Do they want to intimidate reporters who eagerly wait to get a word from Nick Saban, victor and hero?

Whether or not we have actually reached a police state is less significant than this sobering point. Our governments want us to think and act as if we inhabit a police state. That’s why we see public displays of force so often. You can impress a lot of people when you turn out at the Bowl Championship Series football game. A lot of people will see you there, still more on television. To create the right atmosphere, you push a couple of reporters, hard. The purpose of this behavior is not to keep Nick Saban safe from sports writers. Its purpose is to keep government safe from us.