The Criminalization of Everyday Life
Posted by MEC on April 8, 2007
(The Four Freedoms, by Norman Rockwell)
Last year a friend moved from Massachusetts to California. Which meant that she had to replace her Massachusetts driver’s license with a California license. Which meant she had to prove she was who she claimed to be. The Massachusetts driver’s license was not sufficient proof, since she might have obtained it under false pretenses. So she brought her birth certificate to the California DMV office, and, to explain why the surname on her MA driver’s license was different from the surname on her birth certificate, her divorce papers.
She did not get her driver’s license that day, because the divorce papers were insufficient to explain the difference in surnames. She had to go to the time, trouble and expense of obtaining a copy of the marriage license, and come back another day. Because if she couldn’t prove her identity beyond a reasonable doubt, then the state would have to conclude she was using a forged identity.
This is just one example of the government assuming we are guilty unless we can prove our innocence. That attitude is spreading throughout our everyday lives, and all too often we just shrug and accept it.
It is difficult these days to get personal records from government agencies, especially from another state? There are restrictions on obtaining copies of anything that can be used for identification, because, you know, you might want it because you’re a terrorist or illegal immigrant in need of a false ID, and not, for example, an amateur genealogist.
It’s a reasonable precaution for financial transactions, because there are in fact so many ways to steal account information. But for most other activities, it worries me that we’re being trained to “show our papers” and tolerate being treated like suspected criminals.
I have many friends who will not fly, or who who will no longer cross the Canadian border, because of the absurd “security” requirements. Their boycott doesn’t affect the government policy in the slightest; it just restricts their own activities. (If you think the security is necessary or useful, you need to be reading security expert Bruce Schneier’s blog. He’s demonstrated repeatedly why airport security does not make us safer but only makes us accept any kind of nonsense the government wants to inflict on us. To make this point, Bruce is sponsoring a contest to “invent a terrorist plot to hijack or blow up an airplane with a commonly carried item as a key component. The component should be so critical to the plot that the TSA will have no choice but to ban the item once the plot is uncovered”.)
Then there are all the people who cannot fly, at least not without considerable stress and worry, because their names found their way onto the No-Fly List, or at least a name vaguely approximating their own. Time after time, they have to prove that they’re not criminals to be able to exercise their right to travel.
The Washington Post recently reported that people are being denied loans, rentals, and other business transactions because their names are similar to names on a Treasury Department list of suspected terrorists and drug traffickers. I know from my own experience that business customers are required to provide more personal information than in the past, and accept delays in completing transactions, so the business can make sure they’re not dealing with a criminal.
Several years ago the Bush Administration decided to require stricter proof of income from all families of children who participate in free-lunch programs at school. It’s also raised the bar for proving eligibility for the Earned Income Tax Credit. Both of these changes emphasize the default assumption that people are dishonest, or would be if they could get away with it.
The “crackdown” on “illegal immigration” has spawned stricter requirements for proving one’s citizenship, usually by producing a paper trail from birth to the present day, as my friend had to do in order to get a driver’s license.
Then there’s voting. We know the Republican philosophy of “voting reform”: Assume there would be widespread voter fraud unless Steps Are Taken to prevent it. Thus, the spreading requirement to produce picture ID to prove one’s eligibility before voting.
All of these restrictions are worse than just inconvenience.
For the person who can’t get a copy of her own birth certificate to prove her citizenship to a potential employer, or the person who might get a free “non-driver” ID except that the nearest office is 30 miles away and only open during her work hours, or the person who has to endure a strip search and interrogation before boarding a plane (and may miss the flight because of it), they’re an infringement of civil rights. The child who doesn’t get an adequate lunch because his parents didn’t keep their paycheck stubs and the parents who don’t get the Earned Income Tax Credit because the requirements for proving eligibility are too baffling suffer real, physical harm.
The rest of us are harmed, too. We learn to accept the assumption that anybody might be a criminal. Distrust destroys community.
Worst of all, we learn, by enduring these requirements and restrictions, to accept whatever the government says is necessary, no matter how absurd or tyrannical. We learn to relinquish, bit by bit, our legal rights.
This is not my America. Is it yours?
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