I'm talking about a national identity card an idea that Silicon Valley mogul Larry Ellison has proposed in order to enhance national security. The card, according to Ellison's notion, would contain basic information about the holder, including social security number, digital records of thumbprints, and a link to a federal database.
Let's get this out of the way first: It's a very un-American idea. By that I mean, it goes against our grain. Don't tread on me. Give me liberty or give me death. Or that bumper sticker you sometimes see out West, 'I love my country, but I fear my government.'
[an error occurred while processing this directive]Yes, it smacks of Big Brother. Indeed, the prospect of a police officer saying, "Your papers, please," seems to represent everything we fought against during the Cold War. It reeks of the repressive policies of totalitarian states that restrict the free flow of ideas, of people, of commerce, of everything.
I spent some years living in South Africa during the bad old days when the white government used national identity documents as an insidious way of subjugating the black majority. There, the national ID was a tool of repression.
OK, let's think again. The ID has been proposed as a way of preventing what happened on September 11. Of the 19 hijackers, only two were in this country illegally. Would the others have attracted police attention if they had to apply for some kind of national identity card, which required valid visas, pictures, fingerprints? Perhaps. Would such ID documents be helpful in tracking down the terrorists? Probably.
What is it that we're really afraid of, after all? What's the real harm? Those on the right and left and what other issue can unite Nadine Strossen, the head of the American civil liberties union, and Phyllis Schlafly? fear a national ID as the first step toward a police state.
But the card in and of itself is harmless. It's just a card. It would need to be supported by a massive centralized database, and that, rather than a piece of plastic, is what could be abused. But strict laws could help prevent that, just as the 4th Amendment protects us against illegal searches and seizures.
Ellison's proposal makes the cards voluntary for U.S. citizens but mandatory for foreign visitors, whether they're students on visas, or non-citizens living and working in America who hold "green cards." What this would mean for the eight million or so illegal immigrants in the U.S. is anybody's guess. Any American without a card could board a plane, for example, but only after undergoing a more rigorous examination.
Rather than allowing the government to restrict your freedom, the cards might in fact alleviate a different kind of constitutional problem, ethnic profiling. Had the four Arabic-looking men who were hustled off of commercial jet a couple of weeks ago produced their spanking new national ID card, the airline might have felt a little more sheepish about booting them off.
And, by the way, Americans support the idea of a national ID card. A Pew poll from September shows that 70% of Americans like the idea, while 60% of those questioned in TIME/CNN poll from last week gave the it a thumbs up.
The card would not alleviate what many people think of as a much worse problem, international visas. Visa applicants are not checked with the CIA or the FBI. We have no central global counterintelligence database. There is virtually no coordination among the INS, the FBI, the State Department, and the Customs service. This goes for border checking as well. At the moment, an estimated 500,000 people are in the U.S. with expired visas and we have no way of checking who they are.
The national ID throws a spotlight on the competing equities of security and freedom. We have always had to find the right path between these two virtues. During wartime, America has a long and not very glorious history of sacrificing liberty in favor of security. John Adams championed the Alien and Sedition Acts during a period of tension with France. Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War. Franklin Roosevelt tolerated the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.
None of those acts make Americans proud. But the national ID does not even compare with those sorry episodes. In and of itself, it's neutral. We will need to use the Constitution to prevent the card from being abused. We're no longer an island anymore. Fortress America is porous. The national ID card is an idea whose time will eventually come. And, in the end, I don't think it's such a bad one after all.