Can I See Some ID?

I was in Washington a few weeks ago and attended an event at a bar.  I showed up with my colleague Charlie; we’re both in our 50s, our hair is gray or thinning or both, our faces seamed by decades of care.  No one could mistake us for teens, but we pulled out our photo IDs and showed the bouncer.  We had to; otherwise we couldn’t get in.

Eight years ago, I wrote in this space that I possessed one of the few non-photo driver’s licenses left in America.  I finally submitted to the tyranny of the camera when I renewed my license in 2009.  Between frequent flying and DC bar-hopping it was just too much of a hassle to remember to always bring my passport.

Later, Charlie and I talked about how reflexive and normal the reach for ID has become.  It used to irritate me (as many things do) and tempted as I was to engage pointless, philosophical discussions with bouncers (“Really?  What’s the likelihood I’m under 21?”) I knew they were trying to hang onto not-very-remunerative jobs in a tough economy (and they were, after all, bouncers).

Here in Vermont, electric utilities are installing smart meters on houses – a good thing for efficient use of electricity and a necessary tool in the fight to slow global warming – but the state chapter of the ACLU has very real concerns about privacy and wants law enforcement to be required to obtain a search warrant before gaining access to someone’s smart meter data.

Well, what’s a little more personal data out there anyway?  Since September 2001, governments at all levels, the private corporations that work fore them, and many that don’t, have collected an enormous amount of information about us all.  George W. Bush led the initial assault on our civil liberties; Barack Obama promised to rein it in, but has actually accelerated it in some ways.

Well, what’s the problem with a middle-aged guy having to show his photo ID before entering a bar or letting cops peep at his electrons?  I neither drink nor grow pot in my basement (or anywhere else, for that matter).  The problem is we are all getting too used to being good sheep, showing IDs, taking off our shoes at airports, surrendering our data to anyone who asks.  (Or doesn’t ask.  See any facebook page.)

This week the Center for Constitutional Rights is suing New York City over the police department’s “stop and frisk” program.  Initiated under Rudy Guiliani in the ‘90s, the program has exploded under Michael Bloomberg and Police Chief Ray Kelly (who is said to have mayoral aspirations).  This year, the program is on track to harass 750,000 citizens, 85 percent of who will be black or Latino, even though those groups comprise only half the city’s population.

Isn’t it a small price to pay for safer streets?  No, it’s not.  In the first place, there’s no evidence that turning the NYPD into a thug squad has done anything to bring down the crime rate, since NYC’s crime rate has risen and fallen along the same lines as cities that don’t grab people on the sidewalk (or in the halls of the buildings where they live) and shake them down.

More important, it’s better to fear criminals than cops.  Even if stop and frisk made streets safer, it wouldn’t be worth it.  Singapore’s safe, but I don’t want to live there, not Riyadh, Pyongyang nor Tehran.  It was safe to walk the streets of Munich in 1938, unless you were Jewish, Roma or a member of other discriminated groups.  Is that an unfair comparison?  I don’t think so.  Just like New York today, members of demographic minorities were targeted for the majority of police harassment. What began with aggressive policing ended in a much uglier place.  If we don’t draw a line here, then where?  When? And if we don’t draw a line now, will be still have the capacity to do so later?

The same week the NYC gets sued for profiling racial minorities, the census bureau announces white babies now make up a minority of US births.  Do you think there’s a connection?  Does it seem to you that the white folks might be getting nervous?  It does to me.

© Mark Floegel, 2012

One Comment

  1. Piet Sawvel
    Posted 5/17/2012 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    Related: suggested reading about the NSA’s warrant-less domestic spying: The Secret Sharer by Jane Mayer Anyone with warm and fuzzy feelings for the Obama administration should wake up.

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