Mention national identity cards, and absolutists on the right and left go into a tizzy. "It'll be like Nazi Germany," say the liberals. "America will be indistinguishable from the Soviet Union," warn the conservatives. This is hysteria.
In the first place, let's not kid ourselves: A modern society cannot function without some form of identity papers. Ours could not and does not. We have identity cards, but they are far too easy to get and to counterfeit. I speak, of course, of the driver's license. A driver's license is necessary to cash a check, open a bank account, obtain a credit card, take a ride in an airplane or train, enter many public buildings, buy a drink or a pack of cigarettes (if you are under 30 or so) and register to vote.
They are so indispensable for identity purposes that most
departments of motor vehicles issue "nondriver licenses" as well. But with 50 states issuing driver's licenses and no central data bank to compare licensees, it is possible -- in fact easy -- to get any number of different, legitimate-looking aliases in America.
Our distaste for anything resembling identity papers has handicapped us in a variety of ways when it comes to fighting terror and other crimes. In the first place, it makes it nearly impossible to track those who enter the country illegally, or those who enter legally and then overstay their visas.
When you travel in Europe, most countries require that you produce your passport in order to stay at a hotel. Information about every guest is reported to the police. This does not make France or Holland a police state. If every person staying in any hotel anywhere in the United States had to produce his national ID, it would be far easier to catch illegal aliens. If you were a citizen, your ID would so state. If you were a tourist, you would have a tourist ID or visa (with the expiration date highlighted). Legal permanent residents, students and others would all have cards identifying their status.
Officials at the ACLU object that "If terrorists are sophisticated enough to hijack passenger airliners and fly them into buildings or to manufacture anthrax, it would be naive to think they could not create counterfeit identification cards." Well, in the first place, the hijackers who committed the Sept. 11 crimes were not so much sophisticated as utterly fanatical and suicidal. What they accomplished was completely low-tech and uncomplicated (though, obviously, stunningly savage). In the second place, as the case of Richard Reid, would-be shoe bomber demonstrated, not all terrorists are rocket scientists. And third, isn't it in our interests to ensure that forging ID papers and other preliminaries to terrorist acts be made as difficult as possible?
American driver's licenses today are primitive. We have the technology to make them extremely difficult to forge using unique biological traits like irises, voice prints, hand prints and retinal scans. It is hard to imagine that such an identity card (or driver's license, we could still call them that for comfort's sake) would infringe upon our liberty. The police can already ask you to show your driver's license for the smallest infraction of traffic laws. More than one of the Sept. 11 hijackers was stopped for a traffic violation in the days before the attack. If they had been obliged to produce an ID, the plot might have unraveled.
And far from placing special burdens on non-white or Middle-Eastern-looking people, a national ID would permit them to avoid some degree of special scrutiny. Obviously, if someone is behaving suspiciously, citizenship or permanent residence is no bar to questioning by authorities, but many people who might have been questioned only because they fit a particular profile (young, male, Middle-Eastern-looking man traveling alone) could sail through security at airports with less delay if we had a relatively tamper-proof national ID.
A national ID would make it easier to track individuals who enter the country on student or tourist visas and overstay their welcome. It would also improve our ability to apprehend the estimated 300,000 convicted criminals who have managed to escape the justice system and are on the lam.
The national ID is overdue. We already use a makeshift ID system that is creaky and easily faked. The feared loss of liberty in a national ID is trifling, while the potential gain in security is substantial.