The shooting war in New York over the question of driver's licenses for illegal aliens dramatizes several features of U.S. culture. The first of these is that the right to drive a car is the most cherished right in America, of special, sizzling importance to young people.
It is easy to understand why. Driving a car is a sign of arrival at maturity. In my own history I remember struggling over the matter of residence. My parents had two homes, one in Connecticut and one in South Carolina. In Connecticut, the age for a driver's license was the orthodox 16. Young residents of the state were easily identifiable as making up the throng who arrived at the Department of Motor Vehicles one day after their 16th birthday, to let not one more minute pass before their blooding as independent Americans. But if I had been officially a South Carolinian, I'd have been able to drive at age 13. There was left over the problem of handling one's parents.
It crept into civil consciousness that the suspension of the right to drive was a huge weapon. Bill Clinton, when he was governor of Arkansas some seasons back, caused a furor when he announced that he had a weapon he was prepared to use against teenagers who didn't complete high school: no driver's license. Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota has more recently proposed deploying that final leverage, and research advises that as many as 18 states are experimenting with limiting the right to drive as a means of affecting behavior.
Other considerations than children's hysterical appetites have come into sight, notably those of illegal immigration and national security. We learn that the 19 people who engineered 9/11 had among them a collection of 63 driver's licenses. Were these critical enablers? After all, you don't need a driver's license to slash a pilot's throat. But you do need a driver's license, or a passport, to board the plane in the first place, and so the security people became exercised on the subject.
We walked into a nicely democratic cavil. One of the parties to this debate, New York state Sen. Bill Larkin, quotes the organization 9/11 Families for a Secure America: "The driver's license is the basic identification document for nearly everyone in America. When the terrorists needed places to claim as a residence, they used their licenses as 'ID' for signing their leases. When they opened the bank accounts that they used to place the financing for the conspiracy, they used their licenses as ID. When they rented cars, rented motel rooms, when they paid tuition for their flying lessons, they used their licenses to 'identify' themselves."
It was thought in California to cleave a distinction. Illegals couldn't get a driver's license, but they could get a "driving certificate." This would permit you to transport lemons from one end of the state to the other, but would not serve as proof of age to get a drink at the bar -- or as ID to board an airplane.
In the raging quarrel in New York, a parliamentary point is introduced: What gave Gov. Eliot Spitzer the authority to specify, without consulting the state legislature, who qualified for a driver's license? That is among the criticisms leveled at Gov. Spitzer's decision to allow illegals to acquire driver's licenses.
The governor argues that doing so will actually strengthen law enforcement, by bringing illegals "out of the shadows." But this is only part of the larger question, which is: How do we treat illegals?
Some years ago, again in California, it was proposed that at the very least we should not fork over money to educate illegals, or to pay their doctors' bills, let alone bills that came in from doctors and nurses who had expedited the arrival of more children born to illegals. Proposition 187 passed handily, but opponents promptly took it to court, on the grounds that whether a person is legally in the United States or illegally here, he is nevertheless a person, and as such, protected by the terms of the 14th Amendment ("nor shall any state ... deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws").
So, a nice try by Gov. Spitzer, but no cigar. He and his party will need to come up with measures more substantive than wordplay to cope with this problem, which derives from progressive assaults on the powers and responsibilities of nationhood.