Mercury Rising 鳯女

Politics, life, and other things that matter

The Criminalization of Everyday Life

Posted by MEC on April 8, 2007

Four Freedoms

(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?


13 Responses to “The Criminalization of Everyday Life”

  1. It’s not my America, either. But it serves the purposes of the Bushies to keep us frightened.

    Note the vast differences in how the Clintons and Gores and the Bushes and Cheneys reacted to 9/11. Cheney dashed for the bunker where he ran the country while Bush hid out in Air Force One for a week playing Whack-A-Mole. Bill Clinton, meanwhile, grabbed the first Air Force jet he could beg passage on and flew straight to New York City and Ground Zero, where he met with Hillary and Chelsea and walked the city streets the next day, in a show of “The only thing to fear is fear itself”. Al Gore was in Vienna, and after trying to get a jet to the US, he hopped the first jet to Canada he could get onto, then rented a car to drive into the US to get to Washington, DC.

  2. whig said

    Also, when you treat people as criminals, at least some percentage of them will live up to the expectations and they will then be used as examples of “proof.”

  3. whig said

    I have found that if you want people to be good and decent, treat them well and decently. This goes for anyone even if they have done wrong in the past, though those who pose an immediate threat might best be avoided until you can be sure that you are safe. Even that consideration brings me some sadness, I wish it were never necessary to keep such distance from one another, and one of the great joys of communicating on the internet is that we can be as close as our words allow.

  4. whig said

    When you treat people well and decently, the world is richer by one good and decent person — yourself.

  5. whig said

    If you don’t know how to treat someone, try compassion.

  6. Charles said

    “Love thy neighbor as thyself”?

  7. whig said


  8. Nina Katarina said

    My daughter bought a snow globe while we were in Nevada. The TSA agent made her take it out of her backpack and submit it for testing, because it ‘contained a liquid’.

    I guess the red hair made her look Irish. Maybe I can sue for racial profiling?

  9. Avedon said

    I don’t think this is new. I think I had to supply about nine different documents to update my driver’s licence in Maryland back in the ’70s. It was a whole lot harder than getting my passport.

  10. Avedon: That’s because Maryland is a borderline-Southern state which has historically made it VERY difficult for blacks to get paperwork sufficient to allow them to vote. It’s one of the handful of states, all of them Southern, that refuse to allow ex-cons who’ve done their time to be able to vote again. (Florida is the most notorious example of this, and even Florida’s now joining the modern age, or trying to.)

  11. Molly, NYC said

    But it serves the purposes of the Bushies to keep us frightened.

    Phoenix Woman – Not just frightened. Having all these BS laws means the Bushies and their associates can arrest and hold indefinitely, anyone, anytime, anywhere.

  12. chenk said

    Those are all very valid observation, but I still remember when random drug testing in the workplace was controversial. I also recall a liquor store job I had in Indiana in 1986 that required a polygraph test for employment and random follow-ups throughout the course of the job. I also recall how in 1996, after returning to the US after 5 years in HK I could not get a bank account in NYC even though I had a valid US Passport and 5 years of IRS records. The banks wanted a NY ID and to get that the above mentioned documents were not sufficient either. On my third visit to the NYC DMV or whatever it is called, I happened to speak to an employee who was HK Chinese and she accepted my HK ID as sufficient proof of my identity (HK IDs are herd to get). So, I’m just saying, we have been headed down this road for some time now.

  13. Rosebuddear said

    Hey – been there, done that. My fiance is Canadian and we have been trying for THREE YEARS now to get him a visa to come here. The US govt. will not accept a short form birth certificate, which he has, but requires a long form birth certificate from the Canadian govt. The form to apply for one of those is like, 10 pages long, and has questions on it which no reasonable person could ever be expected to answer. Name of physician who delivered you at birth. STREET ADDRESS of said physician at the time. (at the time? 45 years ago? OMG) His mom has the form right now and is tracking down those questions. Imagine if your parents were deceased and you were trying to get this information.

    One of the reasons I support gay marriage (aside from it being a simple human rights issue, IMHO) is that I know how it is to be separated from your loved one for long periods of time. Work dictates when we can see each other, which is only about twice a year right now. I contribute to and support a GLBT rights group here in the Twin Cities (Mpls St Paul) they have me on their list as a “straight friend” hahah………….yes straight friend indeed.

    The last time I flew up to Edmonton to see my sweetie I got pulled aside for having too many paperback books in my carryon. He was going to have to work the whole time I was there, so I brought along lots of reading material. Paperback books are dense and opaque, so they raise red flags in the xray. The screener seemed to approve of my choice of reading material. :)

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