The Beast is Back

"Real I.D." for an all too real world


Even in a relationship that has clearly gone somewhere beyond abusive, it can hurt to be reminded how little our "partners" in D.C.—supposedly our agents, in fact, representing our own interests and using only powers we've ceded them—really respect us.

No matter how loyal and supportive we try to be—they ask us to trouble ourselves to vote, and more than half of us do, and it seems to make them so proud—well, every once in a while the velvet glove comes off and we get bitchslapped hard with an open iron slap. Not a fist—that would acknowledge that they actually think we are formidable enough in our own defense that serious force is required.

Such a moment is H.R. 418, the "Real I.D. Act" passed by the House last week. (It features even tougher and more objectionable federal requirements on state driver's licenses than the Intelligence Reform bill Bush signed in December—here's a chart comparing them.) No, it most definitely does not create a national I.D. card—at least not by direct order. (Neither would this plan to make our Social Security cards biometrically secure, and such cards are merely necessary to be able to work for a living—hell it would say right on them that they aren't national I.D. cards!)

No, Real I.D. only forces states to follow federal guidelines in setting up its driver's licenses by essentially making all that state's citizens exiles in their own land if the states don't go along. Starting two years from this bill's becoming law, if it does, all state driver's licenses must have—in addition to the traditional name, date of birth, and gender—a digital photograph, a residential address, and "a common machine-readable technology, with defined minimum data elements."

The law also includes such safety features as a requirement, at risk of losing federal money, to create a machine-readable database of all this info to be shared amongst all states, the feds—and the Canadian and Mexican governments, according to Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) The law states very specifically the nature and provenance of the documentation that the states must demand from citizens as a condition of driving on the freeways their taxes pay for. If the state I.D.s don't meet these requirements, they will no longer suffice for federal identification purposes—such as getting on a plane.

America at large, meet John Gilmore, whose story I told in Reason back in 2003, and who seems more and more wise and prescient in his (so far losing) legal fight for true freedom to travel, unimpeded by demands that he show I.D. Such policies were indeed a way station to an official mentality that has always been the very definition of sinister, officious authoritarianism: "your papers, please."

The Real I.D. act in effect declares that we can't live in this country anymore without a federally specified biometric I.D.—even though there isn't any act of suicidal terror (remember 9/11!) I can imagine that couldn't be done, if needed, by someone with a perfectly legal passport or domestic I.D.

Even beyond the I.D. material, there's some nightmare procedural moves in H.R. 418 on an unrelated topic—immigration control, the bill's major concern—that helps show exactly where this Homeland Security business is meant to lead. Conflicts have arisen between some environmental statutes and building new border barriers allegedly vital to homeland security. But H.R. 418 takes care of that. See Sec. 102, which contains this delightful example of the Rule of Man-not-Law:

Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the Secretary of Homeland Security shall have the authority to waive, and shall waive, all laws such Secretary, in such Secretary's sole discretion, determines necessary to ensure expeditious construction of the barriers and roads under this section.

(2) NO JUDICIAL REVIEW- Notwithstanding any other provision of law (statutory or nonstatutory), no court shall have jurisdiction—

(A) to hear any cause or claim arising from any action undertaken, or any decision made, by the Secretary of Homeland Security pursuant to paragraph (1); or

(B) to order compensatory, declaratory, injunctive, equitable, or any other relief for damage alleged to arise from any such action or decision.

That any member of U.S. Congress could vote for a law with such a provision—giving one (non-elected, no less) official the power to override any existing law, exempt from any judicial oversight or relief, in pursuit of his goals ought to be enough to chill your blood, kids, and send us running for the border—after our passport gets biometrically chipped, of course.

In a nation where federalism is meant to be a founding standard, not a bitter joke, the feds don't even order the states to give up on their former prerogative of running driver's license bureaus—because they don't have to. The feds are so thoroughly in charge in this abusive federal relationship that they know, as with issues like speed limits and drug laws, they are going to win no matter what the states—or, God forbid, citizens—want.

Still, is this really a big deal? We have, after all, been living with de facto national I.D. for a while now. Just ask Gilmore, or Dudley Hiibel, whom the U.S. Supreme Court told last year: Hey, you tell the nice officer who you are when he asks. Even the frequent saving grace of the American system—a judiciary that will, on occasion, tell the legislative or executive branch to stuff it—shows no mercy when it comes to I.D.s, as cases like Gilmore's (not yet finished in its run through the courts) and Hiibel's show.

Indulging in this sort of snarky irony against power becomes cold comfort after awhile, even if it reminds us that we are pretty much able to say whatever we want about the crazy shit they keep doing to us in Washington. And there's the "practical" consideration that, hey, it isn't really that often, yet, that you are asked for I.D. in this world by people who don't have some legitimate, non-coercive, business reason to ask. On a day-to-day level, so far, for most of us, there is a lot of room to live and work and thrive relatively unmolested in America.

But laws like H.R. 418 are designed to severely tighten those gaps in which we can live and do business, with our government or with others, with privacy and dignity intact. Things have changed since 9/11, it's true. Given the paltry amount of verifiable terrorist activity on our shores since then, though, they've mostly changed as a result of the wars waged and laws passed by our leaders who keep assuring us that, hey, things have changed since 9/11, not because of anything inherent in the hideous new age allegedly launched with that evil attack.

Oh, there is much ruin in a nation, and Americans have had their virginity as a supposedly free people violated so often that outraged cries are, perhaps, more ironic indulgence than a source of believable moral dudgeon. Still, it feels good to say that, even though H.R. 418 isn't the law of the land yet, the fact that a majority of our elected representatives in the House voted for it is a disgrace. And whatever pressure can be brought to bear on the Senate to make sure it gets no further would be pressure exerted in the cause of what George W. Bush insists his administration stands for: "the guiding ideal of liberty for all."