John Whitehead's Commentary
Ihre Papiere, Bitte! (Your Papers, Please): Are We Being Set Up for a National ID System?
“The triumph of the S.S. demands that the tortured victim allow himself to be led to the noose without protesting, that he renounce and abandon himself to the point of ceasing to affirm his identity. And it is not for nothing. It is not gratuitously, out of sheer sadism, that the S.S. men desire his defeat. They know that the system which succeeds in destroying its victim before he mounts the scaffold . . . is incomparably the best for keeping a whole people in slavery.”—Hannah Arendt reporting on the trial of Adolf Eichmann
You can’t have it both ways.
You can’t live in a constitutional republic if you allow the government to act like a police state.
You can’t claim to value freedom if you allow the government to operate like a dictatorship.
You can’t expect to have your rights respected if you allow the government to treat whomever it pleases with disrespect and an utter disregard for the rule of law.
If you’re inclined to advance this double standard because you believe you have done nothing wrong and have nothing to hide, beware: there’s always a boomerang effect.
Whatever dangerous practices you allow the government to carry out now—whether it’s in the name of national security or protecting America’s borders or making America great again—rest assured, these same practices can and will be used against you when the government decides to set its sights on you.
Nothing is ever as simple as the government claims it is.
The war on drugs turned out to be a war on the American people, waged with SWAT teams and militarized police.
The war on terror turned out to be a war on the American people, waged with warrantless surveillance and indefinite detention.
The war on immigration will be yet another war on the American people, waged with roving government agents demanding “papers, please.”
So you see, when you talk about empowering government agents to demand identification from anyone they suspect might be an illegal immigrant—the current scheme being entertained by the Trump administration to ferret out and cleanse the country of illegal immigrants—what you’re really talking about is creating a society in which you are required to identify yourself to any government worker who demands it.
Just recently, in fact, passengers arriving in New York’s JFK Airport on a domestic flight from San Francisco were ordered to show their “documents” to border patrol agents in order to get off the plane.
This is how you pave the way for a national identification system.
Americans have always resisted adopting a national ID card for good reason: it gives the government and its agents the ultimate power to target, track and terrorize the populace according to the government’s own nefarious purposes.
National ID card systems have been used before, by other oppressive governments, in the name of national security, invariably with horrifying results.
For instance, in Germany, the Nazis required all Jews to carry special stamped ID cards for travel within the country. A prelude to the yellow Star of David badges, these stamped cards were instrumental in identifying Jews for deportation to death camps in Poland.
Author Raul Hilberg summarizes the impact that such a system had on the Jews:
The whole identification system, with its personal documents, specially assigned names, and conspicuous tagging in public, was a powerful weapon in the hands of the police. First, the system was an auxiliary device that facilitated the enforcement of residence and movement restrictions. Second, it was an independent control measure in that it enabled the police to pick up any Jew, anywhere, anytime. Third, and perhaps most important, identification had a paralyzing effect on its victims.
In South Africa during apartheid, pass books were used to regulate the movement of black citizens and segregate the population. The Pass Laws Act of 1952 stipulated where, when and for how long a black African could remain in certain areas. Any government employee could strike out entries, which cancelled the permission to remain in an area. A pass book that did not have a valid entry resulted in the arrest and imprisonment of the bearer.
Identity cards played a crucial role in the genocide of the Tutsis in the central African country of Rwanda. The assault, carried out by extremist Hutu militia groups, lasted around 100 days and resulted in close to a million deaths. While the ID cards were not a precondition to the genocide, they were a facilitating factor. Once the genocide began, the production of an identity card with the designation “Tutsi” spelled a death sentence at any roadblock.
Identity cards have also helped oppressive regimes carry out eliminationist policies such as mass expulsion, forced relocation and group denationalization. Through the use of identity cards, Ethiopian authorities were able to identify people with Eritrean affiliation during the mass expulsion of 1998. The Vietnamese government was able to locate ethnic Chinese more easily during their 1978-79 expulsion. The USSR used identity cards to force the relocation of ethnic Koreans (1937), Volga Germans (1941), Kamyks and Karachai (1943), Crimean Tartars, Meshkhetian Turks, Chechens, Ingush and Balkars (1944) and ethnic Greeks (1949). And ethnic Vietnamese were identified for group denationalization through identity cards in Cambodia in 1993, as were the Kurds in Syria in 1962.
And in the United States, post-9/11, more than 750 Muslim men were rounded up on the basis of their religion and ethnicity and detained for up to eight months. Their experiences echo those of 120,000 Japanese-Americans who were similarly detained 75 years ago following the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Despite a belated apology and monetary issuance by the U.S. government, the U.S. Supreme Court has yet to declare such a practice illegal. Moreover, laws such as the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) empower the government to arrest and detain indefinitely anyone they “suspect” of being an enemy of the state.
Fast forward to the Trump administration’s war on illegal immigration, and you have the perfect storm necessary for the adoption of a national ID card, the ultimate human tracking device, which would make the police state’s task of monitoring, tracking and singling out individual suspects—citizen and noncitizen alike—far simpler.
Granted, in the absence of a national ID card, “we the people” are already tracked in a myriad of ways: through our state driver’s licenses, Social Security numbers, bank accounts, purchases and electronic transactions; by way of our correspondence and communication devices—email, phone calls and mobile phones; through chips implanted in our vehicles, identification documents, even our clothing.
Add to this the fact that businesses, schools and other facilities are relying more and more on fingerprints and facial recognition to identify us. All the while, data companies such as Acxiom are capturing vast caches of personal information to help airports, retailers, police and other government authorities instantly determine whether someone is the person he or she claims to be.
This informational glut—used to great advantage by both the government and corporate sectors—is converging into a mandate for “an internal passport,” a.k.a., a national ID card that would store information as basic as a person’s name, birth date and place of birth, as well as private information, including a Social Security number, fingerprint, retina scan and personal, criminal and financial records.
The Real ID Act, which imposes federal standards on identity documents such as state drivers’ licenses, is the prelude to this national identification system. Individuals from states that fail to comply with the Real ID Act (there are nine states still not in compliance) will be unable to use their drivers’ licenses as forms of identification in airports starting in January 2018).
A federalized, computerized, cross-referenced, databased system of identification policed by government agents would be the final nail in the coffin for privacy (not to mention a logistical security nightmare that would leave Americans even more vulnerable to every hacker in the cybersphere).
So what is privacy?
In its purest sense, privacy means the right to walk down a street without fear of being accosted by a government agent demanding to know who you are, where you’re going and what you’re doing in that particular place at that particular moment in time.
Privacy means you have the right to tell any government agent who pokes his nose too far into your business to butt out.
Privacy means the right to remain anonymous, if you so choose.
Unfortunately, in an age of constant surveillance, in which we are constantly watched and our movements monitored and tracked—by our technology, by the government, by the corporations, and through our own obsession with social media and smart devices—the case for privacy is no longer quite so clear-cut.
Likewise, the penalty for telling the government to stick it (or mind its own business) is growing more severe with every passing day.
Noncompliance with a direct government order—whether that order is to show your papers, step out of a car, exit your house with your hands up, or bend over and submit to being searched, fondled or frisked—can now result in missed flights, broken bones and dead bodies.
Remember, the police state does not discriminate.
At some point, it will not matter whether your skin is black or yellow or brown or white. It will not matter whether you’re an immigrant or a citizen. It will not matter whether you’re rich or poor. It won’t even matter whether you’re driving, flying or walking.
After all, government-issued bullets will kill you just as easily whether you’re a law-abiding citizen or a hardened criminal. Government jails will hold you just as easily whether you’ve obeyed every law or broken a dozen. And whether or not you’ve done anything wrong, government agents will treat you like a suspect simply because they have been trained to view and treat everyone like potential criminals.
Eventually, when the police state has turned that final screw and slammed that final door, all that will matter is whether some government agent—poorly trained, utterly ignorant of the Constitution, way too hyped up on the power of their badges, and authorized to detain, search, interrogate, threaten and generally harass anyone they see fit—chooses to single you out for special treatment.
You see, it’s a short hop, skip and a jump from allowing government agents to stop and demand identification from someone suspected of being an illegal immigrant to empowering government agents to subject anyone—citizen and noncitizen alike—to increasingly intrusive demands that they prove not only that they are legally in the country, but that they are also lawful, in compliance with every statute and regulation on the books, and not suspected of having committed some crime or other.
It’s no longer a matter of if, but when.
You may be innocent of wrongdoing now, but when the standard for innocence is set by the government, no one is safe. Everyone is a suspect. And anyone can be a criminal when it’s the government determining what is a crime.
We’ve been having this same debate about the perils of government overreach for the past 50-plus years, and still we don’t seem to learn, or if we learn, we learn too late.
All of the excessive, abusive tactics employed by the government today—warrantless surveillance, stop and frisk searches, SWAT team raids, roadside strip searches, asset forfeiture schemes, private prisons, torture, indefinite detention, militarized police, etc.—started out as a seemingly well-meaning plan to address some problem in society that needed a little extra help.
Be careful what you wish for: you will get more than you bargained for, especially when the government’s involved.
In the case of a national identification system, it might start off as a means of curtailing illegal immigration, but it will end up as a means of controlling the American people.
Taking a prophetic cue from George Orwell’s 1984, a 2013 video game Papers, Please “puts players in control of an unnamed border agent in the fictional Eastern Bloc totalitarian state of Arstotzka in 1982.”
As journalist Jason Concepcion explains, “The rules are simple: Decide who can enter the country. This is accomplished by checking each traveler’s documents — passports, visas, work permits — for authenticity and cross-referencing with various guidelines handed down by the state. The state’s instructions are initially simple. Those holding Arstotzkan passports — assuming the information contained therein matches the person at the window — are considered citizens and may cross the border. Take out your green ACCEPTED stamp, mark the appropriate box on the entry visa, hand the owner back his or her documents, and call the next person in line.”
Where things start to get dicey is when the stakes get higher, when there’s money to be made, when there are lives on the line.
As the game progresses, the restrictions on immigration become more complex. A trade war with a neighboring country causes the Ministry of Admission to ban travelers from the nation. Rumors of insurgent groups with forged documents mean every seal and stamp in an entry visa must be double-checked against those in your handbook. If a traveler is heavier than the weight indicated in their passport, then they must be questioned and X-rayed for contraband. Faces are checked against the state’s most-wanted list. Perhaps a prospective immigrant doesn’t resemble the photograph in their documents, in which case fingerprints must be taken and processed. With each passing day, there are more details to check. Some travelers don’t have the correct work visa, or have papers that would have been valid yesterday. These must be scrutinized closely.
Around day two or three on the job, one of the soldiers who guards the checkpoint steps to your window. He tells you he gets a bonus for each person processed for detention. He offers to cut you in. Criminals — sometimes even terrorists — attempt to pass through the Grestin checkpoint. But this is rare. Immigrants who haven’t kept abreast of the constant changes in state policy are much more common. Every now and again, a traveler comes to your booth with a heartrending story — a dying loved one, children they’ve never seen — but the wrong documentation. You could, easily and legally, hand a few of these people over to the guards and make a few bucks on the side.
This is what the banality of evil looks like, as described by historian Hannah Arendt.
Arendt explains: “The essence of totalitarian government, and perhaps the nature of every bureaucracy, is to make functionaries and mere cogs in the administrative machinery out of men, and thus to dehumanize them.”
How do you persuade people to just follow orders and carry out the dictates of a police state?
You turn them into mindless robots. You teach them to obey unquestioningly. You brainwash them into believing that compliance and patriotism go hand in hand.
As Concepcion concludes, “Papers, Please gives players a window into how fascism manifests itself in bureaucracy. The brilliance of the game’s paperwork gameplay is that it makes the player complicit in the projection of state power… ‘What I found making this game,’ [designer Lucas Pope explained], ‘is that this communist setting or this dystopian, fascist setting works nicely for game mechanics because you can tell the player, ‘you have to do this.’ There’s not a whole lot of questioning of, ‘why?’ ‘You have to do it because that’s how we ... run things here, we tell you how to do it and you do it.’ That works perfectly well with the setting of some kind of communist government or some kind of bureaucracy where the rules just come down from the top and boom, that’s your job.’”
Boom. That’s your job.
That about sums things up, doesn’t it?
Yet as I make clear in my book Battlefield America: The War on the American People, it’s not just the border patrol agents or the police or the prison guards who are marching in lockstep with the regime. It’s also the populace that obeys every order, that fails to question or resist or push back against government dictates that are unjust or unconstitutional or immoral.
We have been down this road before.
Reporting on the trial of Nazi bureaucrat Adolf Eichmann for the New Yorker in 1963, Hannah Arendt describes the “submissive meekness with which Jews went to their death”:
…arriving on time at the transportation points, walking under their own power to the places of execution, digging their own graves, undressing and making neat piles of their clothing, and lying down side by side to be shot—seemed a telling point, and the prosecutor, asking witness after witness, “Why did you not protest?,” “Why did you board the train?,” “Fifteen thousand people were standing there and hundreds of guards facing you—why didn’t you revolt and charge and attack these guards?,” harped on it for all it was worth. But the sad truth of the matter is that the point was ill taken, for no non-Jewish group or non-Jewish people had behaved differently.
The lessons of history are clear: chained, shackled and imprisoned in a detention camp, there is little chance of resistance. The time to act is now, before it’s too late. Indeed, there is power in numbers, but if those numbers will not unite and rise up against their oppressors, there can be no resistance.
As Arendt concludes, “under conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not, just as the lesson of the countries to which the Final Solution was proposed is that ‘it could happen’ in most places but it did not happen everywhere.”
It does not have to happen here.
We do not have to condemn ourselves to life under an oppressive, authoritarian regime.
We do not have to become our own jailers.
We do not have to dig our own graves.
We do not have to submit.