National Identity Cards? You may think that as an American citizen, you do not own such a thing, and under no circumstances would you contemplate accepting one. That’s just something for Europeans, Latin Americans, people from countries with a Roman Law tradition, and other such lesser breeds without the law. Any American legislator would think it suicidal to introduce an identity-card law.
Now, all of this is quite true, but nevertheless, we do carry official identity papers, and not just our social-security cards, which we do not have to show to police on demand—not yet. But we certainly carry identity cards if we ever hope to travel by air. If you check in for any commercial flight of any distance, you have to show an official photo ID, and only a government-issued document will suffice. No card, no travel, and no chance to participate in all the personal and professional opportunities opened by the democratization of air travel. That makes your identification document usually, your driver’s license—a virtual national identity card, or what the old Soviet Union called an “internal passport.” Identity cards have come to the United States, and nobody protests.
How did they ever sneak this one by us? The official justification was that such identification made terrorism less likely—a proposition that, on slight examination, proves to be utter nonsense. Rarely do terrorists give themselves away by revealing their occupation on their personal papers (“Purpose of visit: mayhem, murder, and carnage”). Moreover, as every counterinsurgency expert knows, if there is anyone whose papers are always in impeccable order, it is the terrorist. The idea that demanding personal identification might control crime is ludicrous, but the whole story does reveal an alarming truth about the ordinary citizens of what they imagine to be a law abiding democratic state. People are prepared to let police and government get away with pretty much anything, so long as it is justified in terms of some convenient outside menace—the more thoroughly demonized the better. And once this ultimate demon’s name has been invoked, the public seems to lose any critical sense about official claims. Oh, you’re doing this to fight terrorists. I see—that’s different.
The tendency to cave in to police bluster was in the news repeatedly this past summer. A fascinating discussion occurred when the American Bar Association organized a group to role-play the social and legal effects of a biological warfare attack on an American city. Not surprisingly, the conclusion was that such an attack—or even a rumor of such an outbreak—would basically be grounds for eliminating all civil liberties overnight and permitting the military to supersede all city and state jurisdictions. In the words of Suzanne Spaulding, a former lawyer for the CIA and the Senate Intelligence Committee: “To an extent, people are going to do what needs to be done and worry about the legal niceties later.” Based on extensive precedent in recent years, she is evidently right. We’ll take pretty much anything thrust upon us.
Illustrating the same grim fact was a recent report from the RAND Corporation entitled Super Bowl Surveillance: Facing Up to Biometrics, by John D. Woodward, Jr. This document explored the implications of scanning large crowds in order to analyze facial features and to use this “biometric facial recognition” technique to pick out anyone previously identified as a potential terrorist. Woodward acknowledges all the difficulties of such dragnet scanning, which offers police forces a technique of surveillance far superior to anything Orwell imagined. “As I board the subway on my way to work, make purchases in stores, visit my doctor, or attend a political rally, my faceprint will be matched with information in the database, allowing the surveiller to track my movements. Similarly, the authorities can enter on their watch list the biometric information—the faceprints— of all those who attended the political rally with me.” However nightmarish, such tactics are increasingly being used, whether we like it or not, because they are a means to defeating an unpopular and indefensible outside menace: terrorism.
One nice feature of the RAND report was the perceptive discussion of “function creep,” or how police tactics developed to fight serious dangers expand to far lesser crimes. Woodward speculates how biometric technology, once it becomes familiar and acceptable (just as we have come to accept our identity cards), it will be used against other unpopular behaviors. Even then, we still won’t fight back. When the police announce that they are surveilling streets to seek out lesser criminals, I can hear the public response now. Oh, it’s something to catch deadbeat dads. I see—that’s different.