One can certainly understand many of the impulses behind the House of Representatives passing by a 261-161 margin H.R. 418. It’s more commonly known as the Real ID Act and addresses immigration policy, the issuance of driver’s licenses and criteria for asylum from oppressive countries, all in the name of preventing terrorism.
Unfortunately, while the bill would be a giant step toward a national ID card and a broad, easily searchable database on citizens, it would do little to prevent terrorist acts — and probably wouldn’t limit illegal immigration much.
Like other crises, the 9/11 terrorist attacks were followed by a flurry of discussion about whether it would be necessary to trade liberty for security — indeed, many answered the question affirmatively without even weighing counter-arguments and moved quickly to considering just how much and what kind of liberty Americans would have to sacrifice.
But liberty vs. security is a false dichotomy. A free society will of necessity be vulnerable to attacks by fanatics, especially those willing to kill themselves in the process of hurting others. But absolute security is an illusion, even in a maximum-security prison or a police state.
Is a totalitarian society really more secure for individual citizens? Did subjects of the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany feel more secure — even from foreign attack — than citizens of the relatively free United States? And which systems are now on the ash heap of history?
Free societies are vulnerable in some ways, but remarkably resilient in the long run, in part because freedom allows flexibility and adaptation from the bottom up, rather than those imposed from the top down.
H.R. 418 would impose numerous top-down changes. It would require states to adhere to federal standards when issuing driver’s licenses, and to issue them only to those who can prove they are in the country legally.
It would establish a national database of information — not confined to driving records — on American citizens, which would be shared with Canada and Mexico.
Since it would cut off federal funds to states that didn’t go along, this would be tantamount to establishing a national ID card. It could then be used — and misused — in other ways. Gun Owners of America, for example, fears “this will give the BATF the expanded ability to impose even greater forms of gun control” since a driver’s license is needed to purchase a gun from a dealer.
It is true that some of the 9/11 hijackers had driver’s licenses acquired when they were in the country illegally. But most of the hijackers were in the country legally. This bill would not deter future potential terrorists with that same status. It does nothing about the millions of people already in the country illegally. Instead, it further invades the privacy of all American citizens.
The impulse was understandable. The mechanism — requiring a federally standardized driver’s license to board airplanes and enter federal facilities — could even be justified. On balance, however, the bill would be a huge imposition on every American citizen that would buy little or nothing in the way of security.
The Senate is considered unlikely to approve this bill. That’s good. The House needs to go back and come up with something less bludgeon-like.