By John Whitehead, constitutional and civil rights attorney at the Rutherford Institute,
“The roundups are getting worse. The checkpoints are getting worse. The harassment is getting worse. The things we were worried would happen are happening.”—Angus Johnston, professor at the City University of New York
No one is safe.
No one is immune.
No one gets spared the anguish, fear and heartache of living under the shadow of an authoritarian police state.
That’s the message being broadcast 24/7 to the citizens and residents of the American police state with every new piece of government propaganda, every new law that criminalizes otherwise lawful activity, every new policeman on the beat, every new surveillance camera casting a watchful eye, every sensationalist news story that titillates and distracts, every new prison or detention center built to house troublemakers and other undesirables, every new court ruling that gives government agents a green light to strip and steal and rape and ravage the citizenry, every school that opts to indoctrinate rather than educate, and every new justification for why Americans should comply with the government’s attempts to trample the Constitution underfoot.
Here in Amerika, things are getting worse—not better—as the nation inches ever closer towards totalitarianism, that goose-stepping form of tyranny in which the government has all of the power and “we the people” have none.
On Friday, Jan. 19, 2018, immigration agents boarded a Greyhound bus heading to downtown Miami from Orlando and demanded that all passengers provide proof of residence or citizenship. One grandmother, traveling by bus to meet her granddaughter for the first time, was arrested and taken off the bus when she couldn’t provide proof of residency.
No word on whether that grandmother was actually in the country illegally.
All we know is that the woman didn’t have proof of identification or residency on her, which is common for many older people who don’t happen to drive and have no reason to walk around with a photo ID. According to a study by the Brennan Center for Justice, more than three million Americans don’t actually own a government-issued picture ID. That group includes the elderly, the poor, city dwellers, young people, college students, and some rural residents who might not live near a DMV.
This isn’t is a new occurrence.
A year ago, passengers arriving in New York’s JFK Airport on a domestic flight from San Francisco were ordered to show their “documents” to border patrol agents in order to get off the plane.
With the government empowered to carry out transportation checks to question people about their immigration status within a 100-mile border zone that wraps around the country, you’re going to see a rise in these “show your papers” incidents.
That’s a problem, and I’ll tell you why.
We are not supposed to be living in a “show me your papers” society.
Despite this, the U.S. government has recently introduced measures allowing police and other law enforcement officials to stop individuals (citizens and noncitizens alike), demand they identify themselves, and subject them to patdowns, warrantless searches, and interrogations.
These actions fly in the face of longstanding constitutional safeguards forbidding such police state tactics.
Set aside the debate over illegal immigration for a moment and think long and hard about what it means when government agents start demanding that people show their papers on penalty of arrest.
The problem with allowing government agents to demand identification from anyone they suspect might be an illegal immigrant—the current scheme being employed by the Trump administration to ferret out and cleanse the country of illegal immigrants—is that it lays the groundwork for a society in which you are required to identify yourself to any government worker who demands it.
Such tactics quickly lead one down a slippery slope that ends with government agents empowered to subject anyone—citizen and noncitizen alike—to increasingly intrusive demands that they prove not only that they are legally in the country, but also that they are in compliance with every statute and regulation on the books.
This flies in the face of the provisions of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which declares that all persons have the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures by government agents. At a minimum, the Fourth Amendment protects the American people from undue government interference with their movement and from baseless interrogation about their identities or activities.
Unless police have reasonable suspicion that a person is guilty of wrongdoing, they have no legal authority to stop the person and require identification. In other words, “we the people” have the right to come and go as we please without the fear of being questioned by police or forced to identify ourselves.
The Rutherford Institute has issued a Constitutional Q&A on “The Legality of Stop and ID Procedures” that provides some guidance on one’s rights if stopped and asked by police to show identification.
Unfortunately, even with legal protections on the books, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for the average American to avoid falling in line with a national identification system.
We’re almost at that point already.
Passed by Congress in 2005 and scheduled to take effect nationwide by October 2020, the Real ID Act, which imposes federal standards on identity documents such as state drivers’ licenses, is the prelude to this national identification system.
Fast forward to the Trump administration’s war on illegal immigration, and you have the perfect storm necessary for the adoption of a national ID card, the ultimate human tracking device, which would make the police state’s task of monitoring, tracking and singling out individual suspects—citizen and noncitizen alike—far simpler.
Granted, in the absence of a national ID card, “we the people” are already tracked in a myriad of ways: through our state driver’s licenses, Social Security numbers, bank accounts, purchases and electronic transactions; by way of our correspondence and communication devices—email, phone calls and mobile phones; through chips implanted in our vehicles, identification documents, even our clothing.
Add to this the fact that businesses, schools and other facilities are relying more and more on fingerprints and facial recognition to identify us.
All the while, data companies such as Acxiom are capturing vast caches of personal information to help airports, retailers, police and other government authorities instantly determine whether someone is the person he or she claims to be.
This informational glut—used to great advantage by both the government and corporate sectors—is converging into a mandate for “an internal passport,” a.k.a., a national ID card that would store information as basic as a person’s name, birth date and place of birth, as well as private information, including a Social Security number, fingerprint, retinal scan and personal, criminal and financial records.
A federalized, computerized, cross-referenced, databased system of identification policed by government agents would be the final nail in the coffin for privacy (not to mention a logistical security nightmare that would leave Americans even more vulnerable to every hacker in the cybersphere).
Americans have always resisted adopting a national ID card for good reason: it gives the government and its agents the ultimate power to target, track and terrorize the populace according to the government’s own nefarious purposes.
National ID card systems have been used before, by other oppressive governments, in the name of national security, invariably with horrifying results.
For instance, in Germany, the Nazis required all Jews to carry special stamped ID cards for travel within the country. A prelude to the yellow Star of David badges, these stamped cards were instrumental in identifying Jews for deportation to death camps in Poland.
Author Raul Hilberg summarizes the impact that such a system had on the Jews:
The whole identification system, with its personal documents, specially assigned names, and conspicuous tagging in public, was a powerful weapon in the hands of the police. First, the system was an auxiliary device that facilitated the enforcement of residence and movement restrictions. Second, it was an independent control measure in that it enabled the police to pick up any Jew, anywhere, anytime. Third, and perhaps most important, identification had a paralyzing effect on its victims.
In South Africa during apartheid, pass books were used to regulate the movement of black citizens and segregate the population. The Pass Laws Act of 1952 stipulated where, when and for how long a black African could remain in certain areas. Any government employee could strike out entries, which cancelled the permission to remain in an area. A pass book that did not have a valid entry resulted in the arrest and imprisonment of the bearer.
Identity cards played a crucial role in the genocide of the Tutsis in the central African country of Rwanda. The assault, carried out by extremist Hutu militia groups, lasted around 100 days and resulted in close to a million deaths. While the ID cards were not a precondition to the genocide, they were a facilitating factor. Once the genocide began, the production of an identity card with the designation “Tutsi” spelled a death sentence at any roadblock.
Identity cards have also helped oppressive regimes carry out eliminationist policies such as mass expulsion, forced relocation and group denationalization. Through the use of identity cards, Ethiopian authorities were able to identify people with Eritrean affiliation during the mass expulsion of 1998. The Vietnamese government was able to locate ethnic Chinese more easily during their 1978-79 expulsion. The USSR used identity cards to force the relocation of ethnic Koreans (1937), Volga Germans (1941), Kamyks and Karachai (1943), Crimean Tartars, Meshkhetian Turks, Chechens, Ingush and Balkars (1944) and ethnic Greeks (1949). And ethnic Vietnamese were identified for group denationalization through identity cards in Cambodia in 1993, as were the Kurds in Syria in 1962.
And in the United States, post-9/11, more than 750 Muslim men were rounded up on the basis of their religion and ethnicity and detained for up to eight months. Their experiences echo those of 120,000 Japanese-Americans who were similarly detained 75 years ago following the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Despite a belated apology and monetary issuance by the U.S. government, the U.S. Supreme Court has yet to declare such a practice illegal. Moreover, laws such as the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) empower the government to arrest and detain indefinitely anyone they “suspect” of being an enemy of the state.
You see, it’s a short hop, skip and a jump from allowing government agents to stop and demand identification from someone suspected of being an illegal immigrant to empowering government agents to subject anyone—citizen and noncitizen alike—to increasingly intrusive demands that they prove not only that they are legally in the country, but that they are also lawful, in compliance with every statute and regulation on the books, and not suspected of having committed some crime or other.
It’s no longer a matter of if, but when.
You may be innocent of wrongdoing now, but when the standard for innocence is set by the government, no one is safe. Everyone is a suspect. And anyone can be a criminal when it’s the government determining what is a crime.
Remember, the police state does not discriminate.
At some point, it will not matter whether your skin is black or yellow or brown or white. It will not matter whether you’re an immigrant or a citizen. It will not matter whether you’re rich or poor. It won’t even matter whether you’re driving, flying or walking.
After all, government-issued bullets will kill you just as easily whether you’re a law-abiding citizen or a hardened criminal. Government jails will hold you just as easily whether you’ve obeyed every law or broken a dozen. And whether or not you’ve done anything wrong, government agents will treat you like a suspect simply because they have been trained to view and treat everyone like potential criminals.
Eventually, when the police state has turned that final screw and slammed that final door, all that will matter is whether some government agent—poorly trained, utterly ignorant of the Constitution, way too hyped up on the power of their badges, and authorized to detain, search, interrogate, threaten and generally harass anyone they see fit—chooses to single you out for special treatment.
We’ve been having this same debate about the perils of government overreach for the past 50-plus years, and still we don’t seem to learn, or if we learn, we learn too late.
All of the excessive, abusive tactics employed by the government today—warrantless surveillance, stop and frisk searches, SWAT team raids, roadside strip searches, asset forfeiture schemes, private prisons, indefinite detention, militarized police, etc.—started out as a seemingly well-meaning plan to address some problem in society that needed a little extra help.
Be careful what you wish for: you will get more than you bargained for, especially when the government’s involved.
In the case of a national identification system, it might start off as a means of curtailing illegal immigration, but it will end up as a means of controlling the American people.
Remember, nothing is ever as simple as the government claims it is.
The war on drugs turned out to be a war on the American people, waged with SWAT teams and militarized police.
The war on terror turned out to be a war on the American people, waged with warrantless surveillance and indefinite detention.
The war on immigration is turning out to be yet another war on the American people, waged with roving government agents demanding “papers, please.”
Where things start to get dicey is when the stakes get higher, when there’s money to be made, when there are lives on the line. All of these government-fueled wars—on drugs, on terror, on immigration—have given risen to whole industries (defense contractors, prison contractors, security contractors, etc.) devoted to profiting off them. And “we the taxpayers” are footing the bill.
It’s easy to point fingers at the Trump Administration, but this feeding frenzy started long before Trump ascended to the White House. He’s just a red herring—as journalist Glenn Greenwald puts it, “a shiny red herring—one that distracts from the failures, corruption, and malice of the very Establishment so invested in promoting it.”
We’re in trouble, and we’re all to blame: the government bureaucrats who are marching in lockstep with the regime just as much as the populace that obeys every order, that fails to question or resist or push back against government dictates that are unjust or unconstitutional or immoral, and that allows itself to become so focused on the political circus before them that they fail to heed the danger creeping up behind them.
We have been down this road before.
Reporting on the trial of Nazi bureaucrat Adolf Eichmann for the New Yorker in 1963, Hannah Arendt describes the “submissive meekness with which Jews went to their death”:
…arriving on time at the transportation points, walking under their own power to the places of execution, digging their own graves, undressing and making neat piles of their clothing, and lying down side by side to be shot—seemed a telling point, and the prosecutor, asking witness after witness, “Why did you not protest?,” “Why did you board the train?,” “Fifteen thousand people were standing there and hundreds of guards facing you—why didn’t you revolt and charge and attack these guards?,” harped on it for all it was worth. But the sad truth of the matter is that the point was ill taken, for no non-Jewish group or non-Jewish people had behaved differently.
The lessons of history are clear: chained, shackled and imprisoned in a detention camp, there is little chance of resistance. The time to act is now, before it’s too late. Indeed, there is power in numbers, but if those numbers will not unite and rise up against their oppressors, there can be no resistance.
You can’t have it both ways.
You can’t live in a constitutional republic if you allow the government to act like a police state.
You can’t claim to value freedom if you allow the government to operate like a dictatorship.
You can’t expect to have your rights respected if you allow the government to treat whomever it pleases with disrespect and an utter disregard for the rule of law.
If you’re inclined to advance this double standard because you believe you have done nothing wrong and have nothing to hide, beware: there’s always a boomerang effect.
As I make clear in my book Battlefield America: The War on the American People, whatever dangerous practices you allow the government to carry out now—whether it’s in the name of national security or protecting America’s borders or making America great again—rest assured, these same practices can and will be used against you when the government decides to set its sights on you.
As Arendt concludes, “under conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not, just as the lesson of the countries to which the Final Solution was proposed is that ‘it could happen’ in most places but it did not happen everywhere.”
It does not have to happen here.