It's a chilling scene familiar from spy movies, but it also has played out in real-world totalitarian states: Without provocation, a police officer demands that a citizen produce identification papers. The unlucky driver or pedestrian fumbles for his wallet, knowing that the price of being "without papers" could be arrest and imprisonment.
This nightmare scenario helps explain why successive presidents and Congresses have resisted the idea of a national identity card, and why the Supreme Court ruled three years ago that police may require someone to identify himself only if there is "reasonable suspicion" of wrongdoing. Americans don't like having to prove who they are.
But now they are being told, most recently by a federal appeals court, that they need to get over their hang-ups about carrying ID. In an opinion upholding Indiana's requirement that voters produce photo IDs at polling places, Judge Richard Posner of the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals acknowledged that some voters, disproportionately Democrats, were probably discouraged from voting by the ID requirement. But he essentially told them to enter the 21st century.
It is "exceedingly difficult," Posner wrote, "to maneuver in today's America without a photo ID (try flying, or even entering a tall building such as the courthouse in which we sit, without one) . . . and, as a consequence, the vast majority of adults have such identification."
The Supreme Court has agreed to review Posner's finding that Indiana's ID requirement doesn't violate the Constitution. But even if his decision is reversed, privacy advocates must respond to his larger argument -- that the combination of technological progress and the terrorism threat has rendered quaint traditional reservations about ID cards. Resistance is futile.
We don't think it is. If anything, advancements in electronic data storage argue against an all-purpose Social Security or other identification card because an identity thief would need to steal only one document to gain access to a universe of personal information. That is why both federal and state agencies discourage -- and, in the case of California, forbid -- businesses from displaying Social Security numbers on documents, badges or correspondence unless required by law.
But in trying to arrest the drift toward an intrusive ID-card society, privacy advocates must choose their battles carefully. One worth fighting is over photo ID requirements for voters. Constitutional or not, they are too sweeping a solution to too small a problem. In the absence of evidence of significant fraud at polling places, a photo ID requirement is at best a distraction and at worse an obstacle to the exercise of the franchise.
Posner is correct, however, that in the aftermath of 9/11, producing a photo ID is going to be a part of the travel experience in this country for the foreseeable future. This is a reasonable accommodation that acknowledges an inescapable reality: that an airplane or a train can become an instrument of terror. The question is how to make identification at airports and railway stations more reliable without creating a national identity card in name or fact.
Here the danger is that the politics of immigration will produce a standoff between Washington and the states in which Homeland Security officials would refuse to recognize some state driver's licenses, either because they were made available to illegal immigrants or because they failed to meet other standards contained in a 2005 law known as the Real ID Act.
This page has supported proposals in California to issue driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, provided that they submit a birth certificate, an ID from their country of origin and proof of California residency, and undergo a background check. But under the Real ID Act, such licenses wouldn't pass muster for federal purposes. As a result, travelers from a state that issued licenses to illegal immigrants might have to carry a passport even for domestic travel, bringing a national ID card that much closer to reality.
The main reason to legalize America's undocumented residents is not to settle the debate over a national ID card. But among its other benefits, immigration reform would slow the stampede to an America in which citizens are continually prodded to prove who they are.