L. Neil Smith's
National ID: I Just Can't Do It
by Joel Simon
Exclusive to TLE
[Part One of Two]
Back in September, Larry Ellison of Oracle had a dandy idea. It was born of pure patriotism, of course; didn't have a whiff of self-interest to it. And he could prove it! "We need a national ID card with our photograph and thumbprint digitized and embedded in the ID card," he famously said. He just happened to have a system that could do that lying around, but to prove his disinterested bona fides, he would "provide the software for this absolutely free." Free, of course, with the purchase of several billion dollars worth of hardware, but never mind.
The idea got a lot of press, and produced heartening howls of protest everywhere but in Washington. But just when it showed signs of going away, it mutated into something that might actually happen. A group calling itself the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators wants to do exactly the same thing, but to disguise it as something we're already used to. Yup, they want to replace all those annoying, inefficient state-issued driver's licenses with smart cards that are all compatible with the same data system. They'll set up a national database (they've asked for $100 million from Congress - a mere pittance) and presto! We'll all be safe. Or something.
The reason I say this might actually happen is that it already IS happening. I live in California, and I carry a card just like that. In addition to the usual photo and description, it's got a magnetic strip that has all that information and a digitized thumbprint to boot.
The guy in the photo looks pissed off. I WAS pissed off at the time. But I tamely took the card and put it in my wallet, and I tamely whip it out every time somebody asks for "photo ID".
The reason for this, of course, is acculturation. It was over thirty years ago, but I still remember how thrilled I was to first get one of these. It wasn't a tether, it was FREEDOM! I could get wheels! I was mobile!
And it didn't seem to have any taint of "your papers, please", because the only time you had to show it was when you really had gotten caught speeding through a school zone, or something.
Except…well, except for the cracker cop who pulled me over in Valdosta, Georgia, and got cranky because he didn't like all these out of state punks driving their hippy vans through his town. And, oh yeah, there was that cracker cop in Wallkill, New York, who pulled me over and got cranky because etc. Then there was that sheriff in Pampa, Texas who wanted to talk to me because somebody with an out-of-state van had been seen near a store just before it got robbed. Mind you, in none of those incidents had I broken an actual law, however trivial. But the card in my wallet and the plate on my van clearly pointed me out as someone who might be suspicious, or as someone they just didn't like.
And it does seem that I'm showing my license to an awful lot of people these days, none of them traffic cops. The cancer metasticizes.
It dawned on me decades ago that all this "license and registration" business wasn't such an unmixed blessing, after all. But it was easy to put up with.
Part of the reason the state driver's licenses aren't completely unbearable is that they are regional. Most of them can't be scanned by any machinery, and those that can be scanned only work in one state. So in most states they remain licenses to drive on public roads and nothing else. That's in the process of changing.
As Duncan Frissell said in the Sierra Times in December, "A National ID card is not about identity. It is about authorization."
It is. Believe me. Last spring I finally saved enough to buy a handgun I'd been salivating over for some time. The same day I also had to go to the DMV to renew my driver's license. It took about an hour to fill out all the forms for the pistol, during which they made a photocopy of my driver's license. Afterwards, I went and got a new driver's license; the one with the pissed-off photograph.
About a week later I got a call from the gun shop. My new gun registration had been denied because I'd used an invalid driver's license as identification. No, it wasn't invalid when I applied for the registration. But it was by the time they got around to deciding whether to approve it. By then I had a new driver's license, and the old one had been invalidated. My papers, you see, were not in order.
Only an irritation, you'll say. Just a bureaucratic snafu. You got your damn handgun eventually, didn't you? After all, if they don't check your identification, any criminal could walk right in and buy one.
Cool. So they checked my damn identity, all nice and proper, and got it wrong anyway. And I got the warm feeling that comes of unsuccessfully proving I'm NOT a criminal before purchasing the only product the keeping and bearing of which is actually mentioned in the U.S. Constitution as a right that "shall not be infringed."
Now, I know that the mere mention of a slippery slope on this subject is supposed to be enough to assure your status in the lunatic fringe. Fine; so be it. We already have in place a system in which without properly authorized paperwork we may not purchase, keep or bear arms, and we may not travel by air. This isn't a slippery slope, people. We've been pitched over the cliff. If those things can be prohibited without our papers being in order, absolutely anything can. My California ID card is a license to buy guns and to fly as well as to drive. And it can be revoked at any time, for any reason or none. As the system becomes more widespread and efficient, the list of things I need this little plastic license's permission for will inevitably expand.
Prove that you're NOT a felon before you buy a gun. Prove that you're NOT a terrorist before you board a plane. Prove that you're NOT a drug dealer before we'll return your property. Prove that you're NOT a seditionist before you start a web page, or a newsletter. "Innocent until proven guilty?" That's just outmoded thinking, like those yellowed pieces of paper with the crabbed hand-writing we used to see in elementary school. Don't you know there's a war on?
After all, if you don't have anything to hide, why would you object?