The Mother of Reinvention

The real reason Americans detest the idea of a national ID card

Although the Constitution doesn't directly mention it, Americans have always reserved the right to reinvent themselves—to wade into the waters of rebirth and emerge with new faiths, new livelihoods, new spouses, new sexual preferences, and even new names. The cult of unending self-improvement, our informal national religion, takes as its primary article of faith the idea that who a person was yesterday or happens to be today doesn't determine who he'll be tomorrow. Whether for first-generation immigrants or seventh-generation establishment WASPs, this is the land of clean slates and second chances—where, for example, a decades-old drunk-driving arrest need not prevent a man from becoming President. It's no accident that most self-help groups use "anonymous" in their names; to Americans, the first step toward redemption is a ritual wiping out of the self, followed by the construction of a new one.

Which may account for some of the hostility to proposals for a new national identity card as a weapon in the war on terrorism. Orwellian fears of bureaucratic snooping fuel much of this resistance, but not all of it. There's a positive preference at work as well: for fluidity over stability, for dynamism over lamination. In America to be ID'd—sorted, tagged, and permanently filed—is to lose a bit of one's soul. To die a little.

This sounds like a subtle, poetic notion. It's not. In American legal and cultural tradition one essential privilege of citizenship is not having to prove it on demand. If a cop swaggers up to you on the street tomorrow and asks for your name, you won't be breaking any laws if you answer "Walt Whitman" or "Mickey Mouse." Not that you have to give any name at all. Of course, there's a chance that you'll be arrested anyway (possibly on some local vagrancy ordinance of doubtful constitutionality), but even then you'll have a right to silence. In principle the line is clear: unless and until the citizen asks the state for something in return (the chance to drive a motor vehicle, say, or to fly on federally regulated aircraft), his identity, or lack of one, is purely his own business.

In practice the right to remain a cipher was largely bargained away with the New Deal. When the Social Security Act went into effect, some critics sensed a threat to personal privacy, and the government got busy reassuring them that they had nothing to fear. The deep-seated apprehension that Social Security numbers would come to serve as de facto national "dog tags" placed the Administration on the defensive and figured almost as prominently in the debate as concerns about the program's cost. (There were even rumors in the press that American workers might have to provide fingerprints as a precondition of employment.) In retrospect the furor seems almost quaint. SSNs have over the years become, with precious little public outrage, precisely what the New Dealers swore they wouldn't become—near universal digital surnames.

Softened up by passwords, PINs, and credit ratings, most Americans no longer cringe at the prospect of being reduced to numbers. The national ID cards now being proposed in the name of homeland security would, however, take the process to a whole new level, by serving not merely as bureaucratic conveniences but as high-tech surrogate selves. In the industry they call them "smart cards." Embedded computer chips, instantly readable by machines, might store anything from one's date of birth to one's racial makeup. The information on the cards themselves would hardly matter, though; the key to the system would be the databases, richly detailed and voluminous, that the cards plugged into.

At the moment, the most popular plan is to link a new, improved state driver's license into a national computer network that would be accessed every time the card was swiped. Such a card might feature a "biometric" identifier: an electronic map of, say, its owner's iris or palm print. Card readers might be installed in airports, highway-patrol cars, and government buildings—no one really knows yet. What we do know, however, is that such cards, whatever their original stated purposes, are highly susceptible to mission creep. A Social Security number becomes, in time, a check-cashing and a taxpayer ID. A smart-card driver's license might soon mutate into a license to enter professional football games or to pass across the George Washington Bridge.

It's easy to have nightmares about such cards. With so much more identity to steal, identity theft would go from being a headache to something approaching virtual murder, consigning the victim to a physical and economic no-man's-land. Even worse, the card—and the river of personal data flowing from its tiny silicon head gate—might fall into the hands of marketers, forever rendering the unlucky bearer an easy mark for coffee-of-the-month clubs and home-equity loans. And don't forget Big Brother.

One shudders to think how such cards might be abused. And yet however troubling the prospects of being tracked, hacked, or harassed, the real danger of a national ID card is the effect it might have on our definition of identity. American identity, that is. Out would go the old notions of personal metamorphosis and spiritual plasticity, to be replaced by the dead gray matrix of one's palm lines. As for that wonderful Whitmanian sense that the individual American somehow embraces and contains the multitude, it would shrink away right quick—along with the oddly sustaining national fantasy of hitting the road as a hippie or a cowboy.

Along with the right to reinvention and the intertwined right to remain anonymous, Americans have traditionally possessed this other strange, exhilarating freedom: the freedom to disappear. Most of the time it lies dormant and unused, but there have been moments in our history—during and after the Civil War, in the midst of the Great Depression, and at the height of the anti-war 1960s—when the freedom to go underground and out of sight has been crucial to our social survival. To vanish, to take a powder, to cut and run—from an army one can't fight for, a community one can't live with, or a directive one can't obey—can be a legitimate political act, and sometimes the consummate political act. In a digitized land of national ID cards, dropping out will be impossible, and dreaming about it will be futile.

For the purposes of a national ID card, identity is a unique, unchanging set of distinguishing characteristics: the flecks in one's iris, the ridges of one's left thumb. It's what sets us apart from others and from the mass. As Americans, though, we have a higher identity: free agent, self-legislator, citizen. It's a common identity held individually. It's what allows us to bond and make a nation or, if necessary, dissolve our bonds. This identity can't be captured on a card, but there is a risk it could be supplanted by one.