There's something almost touching about the faith some Americans have in identification cards. A few weeks ago I had a meeting in the headquarters of a giant media conglomerate in midtown Manhattan. The place used to have a simple guest policy: Visitors got a "pass" from the reception desk and then showed it to the security guards by the elevator banks. Nothing was very complicated about this, and it was an easy way to control who got into the building.
But on my last visit to the building, all that had changed. Before even being admitted to the lobby, I had to flash an I.D. to a security guard at the front door -- anything with a photo and a name would do -- who had been transformed into a minimum-wage bouncer, and who was doing his best to keep a crowd of visitors and staff filing orderly through his velvet ropes. The same experience was repeated in the reception office, where the staff was dutifully making sure no one was going to screw around with their friends in the building by being announced as "Seymour Butz."
And it wasn't just at this particular office building, where staffers haven't received so much as a postcard from their vacationing coworkers for fear of anthrax in the mail, that I.D.s are now required. Across the country, the act of reaching for one's driver's license is now a ritual. It's worth noting that Mohammed Atta and his cohorts, as passengers on U.S. flights on September 11, were required to show photo I.D.s--if not their foreign passports then driver's licenses, obtained either illicitly or through lax state regulations. Furthermore, they almost certainly told the check-in agents that yes, they packed their bags themselves, and no, nobody had given them anything to carry. Yet they were still able to carry out the worst terrorist attacks in American history.
As anyone who went to college in America knows, it is pathetically easy to get fake identity documents good enough to fool most bouncers and bartenders (perhaps they need to be federalized, too). All that is required is an enterprising friend with a scanner, a color printer, and a laminating machine available at any Office Depot. Just think what sort of equipment terrorists, financed by the prodigal son of a Saudi construction fortune, can get their hands on.
Yet the delusion that putting a name -- any name -- to a face in a day and age when America's enemies are willing to take the controls of a jetliner and slam themselves into an office building persists. In fact, some (most famously Oracle CEO Larry Ellison) have been pushing the notion that a "national I.D." card is the answer to America's security woes, and that making citizens reach for a piece of plastic linked to databases laden with personal information is the solution. Yet it's hard to see how this would do much more than let airlines know how many bad credit risks they have in the air at any given time.
Why? Much has been made of the terrorists' use of a sort of ju-jitsu against America: They took the country's strengths--prominent skyscrapers, easy air transportation, freedom of movement--and used them against it. But another weapon of theirs has been ignored and it's one that undermines the national I.D. case: patience.
The members of Al Qaeda who attacked the United States on September 11 (and other adherents who are almost certainly still here) spent years going about their business and blending in to society as best they could, and there's no reason to expect that they wouldn't have been able to obtain the sort of documents that are now being proposed. Although many Americans would surely feel that they were more secure and that they were "doing their part" by showing their papers even more than they already do, it's hard to see how making a fetish out of I.D. cards makes the country any more secure -- even if it does ease some peoples' insecurities.