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You'll love those national ID cards

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Today, we learn the conclusions of a special task force examining the merits of a national, tamper-proof ID card. The task force, set up by the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, is working closely with various federal agencies and Congress. I hope it won't dance around the issue, fearing public reaction, and will recommend outright that everyone within this great country be required to be able to prove their identity.

As a sociologist, I realize that many Americans have long had a visceral reaction against mandatory ID cards, which they associate with the "domestic passports" used in the old Soviet Union. The right to be left alone is widely linked to the notion that a person has a right to remain anonymous unless authorities can show cause to suspect the person committed a crime.

But Americans increasingly recognize that one cannot fly, drive, go overseas, enter many public buildings, or, often, even cash a check without identification. To say that these are voluntary ID cards is a joke to anyone who must drive to work or fly to conduct business. IDs are so widely required that motor vehicle departments issue nondrivers licenses.

Terrorists and criminals are also covered by the de facto requirement to have an ID. The problem is that they have many, one for each alias. While most Americans have no reason to purchase false IDs (unless they are college kids trying to sneak into a bar), they are easily obtainable by terrorists and other criminals.

Social Security and green cards are sold in border towns for about $50. Local authorities readily issue birth certificates with any name - the favorite avenue to a false passport. Before Sept. 11, several states - including Virginia and Florida - were notorious for providing cheap driver's licenses for people out of state. So issuing fraud-resistant ID cards will take nothing from law-abiding Americans, while hindering law-breakers.

First among those to be greatly inconvenienced, thanks be given, will be terrorists. Most of the 19 hijackers had multiple IDs, which they used to open bank accounts, get pilot licenses, and buy airline tickets, all without revealing their true identity. Public authorities now call for tracking systems that will allow us to find out if a person who came to study in the US is really taking classes on some campus, or if people who came on a tourist visa left after its term expired.

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