I have an assignment for an aspiring historian: Locate the moment in American history when ordinary people began to fear one another more than they feared the potential of government to abuse its power. I am sure the moment exists. I see signs of it everywhere. Consider the case of how a national identification card reflects this redirection of our fears.
We are living in the world George Orwell wrote about, a place in which Big Brother not just watches, but controls the ability of ordinary people to take care of themselves. Requiring a national identification card, or requiring that access to common means of communication can only take place by use of a verified identification procedure, strikes at the very heart of liberty. You are recognized as a member of society with the right credentials; without the proper papers, you become the exile next door.
President Obama wants the Commerce Department to spearhead a move to create an Internet identification card for all Americans. The effort is pawned off as a benign step toward creating a safe “identity ecosystem.” We are supposed to be relieved that this effort is to be spearheaded by Commerce, and not the Department of Homeland Security or some other law enforcement agency. Why this is supposed to be reassuring is by no means apparent. The creation of a required means of identifying oneself before interacting with others gives to government the means to decide when and whether a person can communication, where they can live, whether they can eat.
This past summer, I found myself without any cash while in a parking garage. I stopped at a bank to withdraw some cash using the credit card I had in my wallet. The bank would not permit me access to funds, even though I had credit available on the card. All at once, I was at the mercy of electronic gatekeepers. I had money, but the teller would not permit me access to it; my car, and hence my ability to go about my business, was in the control of the parking attendant, who might not let me have it back. For a few tense moments I approached the terror of homelessness: I was without the means to negotiate in a world governed by those who controlled electronic access to money. They could shut me off with the flick of a switch.
Identification cards are a means of social control. That’s all they are. Armed with a driver’s license, you are permitted to drive. If you do not have a license and are stopped by the police, you will be arrested. Why? It’s not because you have suddenly forgotten how to operate the car. Rather, it is because your presence on the road behind the wheel is deemed illegitimate. Unless the state conveys permission to drive, you cannot. Any national identification card, any central registry offering “secure” and “safe” identification also permits the administrators of the registry to declare who is and who is not “safe” or a “security” risk. Just who is an “enemy combatant” these days? Potentially all of us; we are all susceptible to indefinite detention in the amorphous war without end, the war on terror.
I do not need the government to tell me who I am. I know who I am. But who is the officious nitwit seeking to control my movements, my access to cash, my ability to communicate? There was a time in this country when ordinary people viewed those seeking to wield authority with suspicion. What would “they” do to “us” if “we” gave them too much power? The center of gravity was popular confidence in our ability to provide for ourselves. From this flowed a corollary: power corrupts. The American experience was characterized by an instinctive reaction to assertions of power. There was a presumption in favor of liberty.
I find great hope in the Occupy protests around the country. The face-to-face contacts and alternative networks of communication simply reject the status quo as socially unsustainable. It isn't so much that Occupiers have checked out in pursuit of utopia; they've simply chosen to restrike the balance of fear. Corporations, government, big media, and the incestuous relationships uniting them aren't so much wrong as irrelevant to the lives of many Americans. Is the push for a national identification card a means of nailing everyone to the electronic board the better to keep track of the sheep? Who, pray tell, is the shepherd?
We seem to have lost the sense of confidence in ourselves that defined the founder’s era. We are now so terrified of one another that our instinct is to hate and to regulate. We fear one another, not the state. No longer secure in ourselves, no longer possessed of a sense of individual destiny, and, dare I say, no longer possessed of spiritual confidence, we seek the shelter the very thing we used to regard with suspicion. Is it any wonder our political rhetoric no longer matches the reality of our lives? We mouth commitment to an American Dream, but live in the darker shades of an emerging nightmare.
When was the tipping point? When did fear of one another replace fear those who assert claims of authority in our names? The root of it all reaches back far further than 9/11, although those attacks continue to make Osama bin Laden one of the most influential men in American history. I don’t have the answer. I don’t even have a decent hypothesis. But I was amazed reading one of the Federalist Papers the other day. The entire worldview was different; there was a confidence in the rhetoric lacking in today’s political chatter. Glenn Beck can quote the founders all he likes, but he’s a naked reed shuddering in the wind.
There has always been fear, and there always will be. But what we point to in our terror changes. Today we fear one another and give to the state evermore power in the desire to feel safe. It wasn’t always so. We once feared the state and thought we were capable of fending for ourselves. We’ve lost that confidence, and hence the object of our fear has changed. How did this happen?
Find me the historian who can answer this question.