Edwin F. Kagin is a lawyer-poet. He believes that, through grace and faith, this will be a regular column, and, if events are predestined, whatever he believes makes no difference whatsoever. He can be reached in care of this publication, or through e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org
ON A NATIONAL IDENTITY CARD
“`Who are YOU?’ said the Caterpillar.”
Alice in Wonderland
The advances of humanism in the development of civilizations have involved a balancing test between the possible and the prohibited.
Does the end ever justify the means? Of course it does, sophomoric philosophy notwithstanding.
Thus, a loving mother may bash out her infant’s brains to stop its crying that would otherwise bring certain death to the entire tribe hiding from enemies. To stop an enemy submarine from sinking an entire ship, irreplaceable human beings who have fallen off the ship into the sea may be killed if it is necessary to drop depth charges before they can be rescued.
For a more palatable analogy, consider the moral issue of lying, i.e., of stating as true something that is not true. Not lying is generally held as a moral virtue, and we teach our children not to lie, and reprove them when they do. Yet what person of decent human sensibilities would tell the truth about the whereabouts of a child to a maniac you knew would murder the child upon discovery. When asked, “Where is the kid,” the more moral answer would be the lie, “I do not know,” rather than “Hiding in the closet on the left.” Under these conditions, the person disclosing the child would be considered a monster and a complicitous actor in any injury to that child. Here lying would be good, and telling the truth would be unthinkable.
These, of course, are examples of “situational morality,” the tough stuff of true ethics and decision making, condemned by those, usually of an immature religious bent, who seek absolute, final, and unchangeable answers in commandments or rules from a deity. You’ve seen the bumper stickers, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it,” or something similar. Yet such, if Christians, generally do not sell all that they own to give to the poor, turn the other cheek, pray only in their closets, go to church on Saturday, not covet, abjure statutes and photographs, never kill, honor abusive parents, leave their families to do god’s work, or live lives of poverty and self denial, all as directly commanded in holy writ. Such Cafeteria Christians take only those rules they like of the teachings, advocate them, make laws encompassing them, punish those who do not obey them, and ignore the rest. Thus, they practice situational ethics. Other religions do the same; they just do it with different rules. That’s why we have a First Amendment.
No matter how many ethics seminars are conducted on why we should prohibit the doing of something, if that something can be done, it will be done. Get used to it. If someone can build a small nuclear device, it will be built. If smallpox can be used as a weapon, it will be so used. If humans can be cloned, humans will be cloned.
If it is possible to highjack a passenger plane and crash it into the World Trade Center, someone will do it, no matter how unthinkable you might find such an idea. The idea was obviously thinkable to someone.
What do you really want? At what price do you want it? What are you willing to pay or to give up? Having trouble losing weight on all available diets? Don’t worry. I guarantee I can make you lose weight despite past failures. But you might not like how I do it. There were no overweight prisoners in Auschwitz. Want to stop drunk drivers—really stop drunk drivers? Make a law that you cannot drink and drive, period. No nonsense about .08, or whatever, permissible blood alcohol. Anything over .00 and you go to jail for sure for a long time. Then you stop drunk driving. But our society doesn’t really want to stop drunk driving badly enough to do that, or we would.
Now, after zero nine one one two zero zero one, we are—and this is new to us in America—we are afraid.
Do you want absolute safety? I can give it to you. But you must not object to me having viewing and listening gadgets installed in every room of your house, as well as in all public places, and you must not object to the instant, no delay, no trial, remote control execution of anyone who violates any of the rules you must permit me to set up for your safety. Would you accept having an electronic receiver painlessly placed in everyone’s brain to punish or kill rule breakers. Yes? Then I can keep you safe. No? Then you must take some chances and not be fully safe. Less freedom, more safety. More freedom, less safety. Simple. You cannot have both. How would you care to compromise? What is your safety worth? What is your freedom worth? Some people were willing to die to be able to crash a passenger plane into the World Trade Center. They are willing to die to do other things to kill you as well. How much do you want to prevent them from doing that? How much are you willing to give up to be safe? Are you ready for a much different, but safer, world?
Now that you know how it works, let’s talk about the proposed idea of a national identity card.
I don’t like clerks in stores asking me for my zip code. And I won’t give it to them. I point out that my contract with them to purchase their widget offered for sale has nothing to do with my zip code. I want to protect my privacy whenever I can, I want to resist having my privacy further invaded, and I will invoke the law to protect it. But I also don’t want to be the victim of drivers who are not licensed, or who borrow or steal someone else’s drivers license. So I will tolerate some loss of privacy by submitting to a photo I.D. driver’s license. Similarly, I do not want a terrorist, dedicated to dying for his cause in the act of killing me, to have a fake passport so he can come into my country and steal an airplane to use as a kamikaze guided missile against me or my fellow citizens. Am I, are you, willing to let the government put your retina print on a national identity card? Do you want to be required to carry a license to move about in our free land? If such be required, is our land still free?
One gives up a certain amount of privacy by agreement, and of necessity, when they join a society. Every society has its rules. Laws require that your very birth and death be registered. Your society tells you who you can or cannot marry and where or where not you can lawfully travel. Your society can jail you if you don’t file or pay your taxes. These rules are part of the consensus ad idem of a culture, if it is in any way a democratic or representative government, and these are different things. Such rules are something your national unit, or a majority thereof, has, directly or indirectly agreed upon for its governance; something the people governed have said may or may not be done.
Illegal aliens don’t want a national I.D. Nor do criminals trying to change identities. Or maybe they do. Could a dishonest type steal another person’s card and assume that identity? Guess it depends on the information on it, and the guarantees thereon for proof of identity. And therein lies the great questions. Remember, if it can be done, we must assume it will be done and guard against it. What will be on the card? If not now, then later, maybe under a government less compatible with your beliefs than was the government in place when you, or your representatives, voted for the card? Will the card record your credit history? Your employment record? What an ex-spouse said about you in a divorce? Your income? Your buying habits? Whether you own a gun? Your hobbies? Your tastes in reading, movies, clothing, cars, food, drink, or sex? Certain Internet sites record this kind of thing right now, whether you know it or not or like it or not. Your political activities and associations? Your membership in controversial groups, like maybe the Masons or Humanist organizations? Your church affiliation or lack thereof? Your psychological profile?
What if some government, now or later, says you cannot be a good American if you do not attend church? And a later government defines the right church? It has happened before. Ask the English Catholics under Oliver Cromwell.
When, and why, will presentation of such a card be required? And who can require its production? Would you need it every time you tried to buy gas, or groceries, so “Big Brother,” for your own good, can know where you are at any given time, and what you eat? Who is to say who cannot require presentation of the card? And who can change the rules?
Why should you object to a national I.D. card if you are a law abiding and loyal American? For the same reason that you should object to an unlawful warrantless search of your home or person, even if you have nothing to hide. To not object to an unlawful search is to invite, or condone, tyranny. The same rules that limit freedom of movement for bad people can limit freedom for you.
Why should you welcome such a card? So you can be safe, and so people trying to kill you can be identified and stopped from doing so. That’s not a bad reason. And to gain this safety, you must trust your government to use the information on the card only to protect your safety, and to not use that same information in a wrongful diminution of those rights that fashion us a free people.
There has been a paradigm shift. And the Attorney General of the United States, who enforces the laws, is having Bible Study Classes in his office, paid for by We the People.
Truly, there is reason to be afraid.
November 20, 2001