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Jewish World Review Dec. 19, 2001 / 4 Teves 5762

Philip Terzian

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Consumer Reports

All my papers are in order -- IN the next two years, about four million identification cards will be issued to soldiers, sailors and airmen on active duty, selected reserves, civilian Pentagon employees and military contractors. The cards, which feature two photographs, two bar codes, a magnetic stripe and computer chip embedded in the plastic, will be nothing like old military ID cards or dog tags. They will plug in to multiple agencies and databases, authorize access to secure rooms, encrypt the holders' e-mail, and enable him to purchase food and supplies. If a private first class should check into her base hospital, the card will summon all available medical records.

According to surveys, the vast majority of uniformed personnel think these universal ID cards are a great idea, and have no misgivings about the extent to which such cards would enable Pentagon officials to monitor their lives. But these same devices are being touted as a model for a national identification card, for all American citizens, an idea that has gained considerable currency since Sept. 11. This is not such a great idea.

To be sure, there are reasons for some sort of national identification system. In the war against terrorism, it would be easier for government officials to monitor the movements of suspicious individuals, or point to such people in disparate locales. Criminal, intelligence and financial records could be linked to a central database, making police "checks" considerably faster and easier. Stakeouts for terrorists and lawbreakers would be tied into an information clearing house, and deadbeat dads might be easier to track down. On a daily basis, and several times a day, very nearly every American would pass through some sort of electronic checkpoint.

To those for whom the events of Sept. 11 are a continuing trauma, such a prospect might seem comforting. For others, however, it is something else again. America is not, and is not likely to become, a police state; but it is worth wondering whether the relationship of government to governed ought to be grounded in a cop mentality. The vast majority of Americans are not terrorists, deadbeat dads, tax cheats or criminals on the lam. The presumption of guilt until innocence is proven is inimical to our oldest constitutional principles.

Proponents of a national ID card like to say that opposition to the idea stems from a historic resistance to strong centralized government. There is, of course, some validity to that; but this is more than militiamen in camouflage griping about square-jawed FBI agents.

To begin with, the notion of individual sovereignty should not be dismissed, even in wartime. It is a strength, not a weakness, of our system that citizens are free to conduct their lives without incessant monitoring by state and federal agencies, and without the police power to detain and interrogate at will. The fact that cops in Belgium are empowered to stop anyone at any time and demand identification, or that Kenyan citizens are required to carry their ID cards at all times, is a favorable reflection on liberty in America, not a chink in our armor.

Second, the notion that a national identification system would not be subject to abuse is absurd. Harvard's Prof. Alan M. Dershowitz, a member of the O.J. Simpson "dream team," recently wrote that "fear of an intrusive government can be addressed by setting criteria for any official who demands to see the card." Anyone who believes that, presumably, is convinced of O.J.'s innocence. There are innumerable criteria governing the behavior of officials, including the police, toward citizens, and such criteria are violated on a daily basis. The good intentions of lawmakers must be carried out by human beings who are only too fallible -- and subject to temptation.

There is also the issue of privacy. Any huge system of electronic identification, administered by the federal government, would not only put private information in the public domain, but be vulnerable to hackers and routine incompetence. Imagine running afoul of such a system by mistake, and trying to undo the damage that is done. If a national ID card is as comprehensive as proponents say it would be, one system error could transform a law-abiding citizen into a nonperson -- unable to withdraw money from the bank, or cross the lobby of an office building -- for weeks and months at a time.

In truth, our resistance to centralized government is very nearly as strong as our faith in new technology to solve complex problems. We do not, at present, live in a state of anarchy in America, and there are plenty of ways -- perhaps too many ways -- for cops to do their jobs within the law. To claim, however, that a national ID card wouldn't be illegally reproduced, mechanically degraded, subject to misuse, stolen by terrorists, or administered with all the finesse of federal governance, is to believe that technology can transcend human nature.

JWR contributor Philip Terzian is associate editor of The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2001, The Providence Journal