Jewish World Review Oct. 1, 2001/ 14 Tishrei 5762

Wesley Pruden

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Some reassurance from George W. -- PRESIDENT BUSH went to Chicago to make some news. He's putting in place several new measures to make flying safer.

That's very good news. The nation's airlines need all the help they can get. Suddenly a lot of Americans have a new fear of flying.

It's too bad the president didn't use the occasion to announce that he had ordered the reopening of Reagan National Airport. That would have further reassured the public that it's safe to get back on the nation's jetliners, and that he, and not his faceless security men, are in charge.

But the most reassuring news of the week was tucked away on an inside page of this newspaper, that the president has trashed the idea, floated by certain paranoids, of a national identity card, a card with photograph and thumbprint that every citizen would be obliged to show any cop, deputy sheriff, or busybody in a uniform who, whether for good reason or bad, asks for it.

A deputy White House press secretary said the president is not even considering it. This is particularly reassuring because the British government is toying with the idea of such a card, though when the news of that got out in London there was so much noise about it that Tony Blair's government went into an English version of the Texas two-step and didn't want to talk about it.

Mr. Blair's men said, well, it would be a "voluntary" identity card. No one would be required to carry it (but anyone who didn't wouldn't be able to function in British society). George Orwell lives. The first thing officious bureaucrats do, on infringing personal liberties and fundamental civil rights, is to coin a suitable euphemism to disguise their agenda. That's why the reassurance from the White House - "the president is not even considering it" - is so reassuring.

The most prominent pusher of the idea is, as you might expect, a computer man. Larry Ellison, the chairman of the Oracle Corp. who has made billions in intrusive software, even offered to give the government the software, which he says is worth $15 billion. Now we know what he thinks the Constitution is worth. He told a radio interviewer that the cards would be easy to make, and scoffed at invasion-of-privacy concerns. "You can go on the Internet now and get all kinds of information about anyone," he said. No doubt. Not reassuring.

Mr. Ellison offers the usual worthless reassurances that of course none of this stuff would ever fall into "inappropriate" hands. This is what the computer geeks always say. Computers, wondrous machines that have made our lives infinitely easier, are wondrous snoops as well, and the computer geeks - the technicians who know how to talk to computers - are always coming up with thrilling new ways to make them intrude into our lives. You could ask anyone in any institution with computers.

Tim Lynch, a lawyer who directs the Cato Institute's criminal-justice project, can hardly be surprised that public-opinion surveys show that most Americans favor the idea of a national identification card. This only demonstrates that most people are too frightened to consider the iron law of unintended consequences, which is always enforced by busybody nudniks (or worse).

"A national identity system is a threat to freedom because once a system is in place it's equivalent to governmental prior restraint. Before an employer hires a person, he runs the card past agencies in Washington. Before a person buys a gun, or opens or closes a bank account there's a check with Washington - there's a ripple effect throughout society. Besides, government agencies will share the information about a cardholder. That's how our privacy is threatened."

The Bush presidency has been transformed, even as the nation has been transformed, by a wave of patriotism that some of us had not seen since the World War II years, and thought we would never see again. George W. seems to understand the hazards that come with the new territory. He has been eloquent in admonitions not to confuse Islamists, who misuse the Koran to justify violence, with peaceful Muslims, who don't. He understands that war is a time when good people can behave as a herd and pick on outsiders, a time to remember, as Boris Johnson writes in London's Daily Telegraph, that "Socrates was martyred when Athens went to war."

It's also a time when good people, in the passion of war hysteria, forfeit fundamental freedoms. "Be it remembered," wrote John Adams on the eve of our revolution, "that liberty must at all hazards be supported. We have a right to it, derived from our Maker. But [even] if we have not, our fathers have earned and bought it for us at the expense of their blood."

Old John Adams would know where to tell the security men to stick their identity card. Fortunately for us, so does George W.

JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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