I was stunned to learn that the United States has the dubious international distinction of incarcerating the highest number of prisoners per capita of any country in the world. Adding to the indignity is the fact that the next two nations in the rankings are South Africa and the Soviet Union {news story, Jan. 5}.

This shocking statistic -- coupled with other indices of growing social decline, including the terrifying epidemic of murders, deteriorating urban centers and high rates of school dropouts, teenage pregnancy and infant mortality -- suggests the magnitude of the challenges facing American society. Are we to move inexorably toward a country characterized by fear and growing economic and social division? Can one today draw any other conclusion?

The White House is pursuing the vision of a New World Order. To this end, Washington is spending billions of hitherto unbudgeted and, we were told, unavailable dollars, to repel the unjustified Iraqi occupation of Kuwait.

I don't question the need to confront Iraq, but don't we also, and with equal urgency, need the vision of a New Domestic Order -- one based on a society genuinely committed to fairness, progress and tranquillity for all? That, too, requires a compelling moral and financial commitment from Washington, which sadly has not been forthcoming. Costly as such as commitment would be, the alternative -- ignoring or minimizing the problems -- surely comes with an even higher price for our social and economic well-being. The burgeoning prison population is but one example.