The irony of the Real ID

Like the footfalls of a villain in a thriller movie, Montana’s Real ID imbroglio comes ever closer … and ever more ominous.

Another footfall, closer and more ominous than the earlier ones, was heard on Jan. 5 when Washington declared that “Montana is not in compliance with the Real ID Act and Federal agencies will not accept driver’s licenses” issued by Helena.

Observers are familiar with the earlier footsteps; Montanans are familiar with the Real ID quarrel.

In 2005, in the wake of 9/11, Washington acknowledged that state-issued driver’s licenses—the default form of identification in the United States—were often fraudulently obtained. As the authors of the Real ID Act noted, “most states did not … verify the true identity of the person before issuing the most universally accepted form of identification in the United States, the driver’s license.” Put bluntly, America’s default ID was often not an ID at all.

It fell to the Department of Homeland Security to establish “minimum security standards for state-issued driver’s licenses.” (Minimum is not minimalist, but a digestible description of the standards is available on Wikipedia.) The bottom line: “Federal agencies [are prohibited] from accepting for official purposes licenses and identification cards from states that do not meet these standards.”


Bruce Lohof

Montana’s response, though not swift, was strong: In 2007 the 60th Legislature made Real ID implementation illegal, saying that it was “inimical to the security and well-being of the people of Montana, will cause unneeded expense and inconvenience to those people, and was adopted by the U.S. Congress in violation of the principles of federalism contained in the … U.S. Constitution.”

Then-Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who signed the legislation, doubled down on the inimical-to-security fear, telling Washington that “Montana objects to the implementation of Real ID for a number of reasons, the most important of those being its threat to our privacy rights. … Montana will not agree to share its citizens’ personal and private information through a national database.”

Other footfalls came quickly. They’ll culminate on Jan. 22, 2018, when Transportation Security Administration officers will begin to inform you that your Montana driver’s license is an invalid form of ID and that “you will need an alternative identification to fly in the U.S.”

The quarrel raises more questions than answers. For instance, Montanans all over the spectrum, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Alt-Right wingnuts, are opposed to the Real ID act. Why is that? For instance, folks who’ve already shared, via social media, everything from their religious beliefs to their shoe size, fear the creation of a “national database.” Why is that?

In most industrial democracies, and in many developing nations, citizens routinely carry evidence of their bona fides in their pockets or purses. What they carry is really an ID. … in America, not so much. Why is that?

But the irony of the quarrel is that folks who resist the creation of a Real ID often support agendas that cannot be pursued without one.

For instance, law enforcement officers in Maricopa County, Arizona, have profiled Phoenix drivers who look Latino, requiring them to prove that they are not—in the term of art—“undocumented immigrants.” By definition, an “undocumented immigrant” has no documents to offer. But then, absent a Real ID, neither does anyone else.

Or for instance, President-Elect Donald Trump and many of his supporters in Montana have advocated the establishment of a “Muslim Registry,” until—as Trump famously said—“our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” But a “Muslim Registry” requires an “everybody registry.” How else can it be known that a Muslim living in, say, Billings, Mont., simply didn’t register?

Imagine the confrontation.

Policeman: “Mr. Mohammed, show me your registration card.”

Mohammed: “I don’t need a registration card. I’m a Christian.”

End of confrontation.

The irony of the quarrel, too, is that folks resisting the creation of a Real ID data base fail to understand that it’s a dream come true. Imagine—living as they do in an us-versus-them world—the comfort of knowing that everyone is registered by DHS specs.: “(1) The person’s full legal name, date of birth, and gender; (2) The person’s driver’s license or identification card number; (3) A digital photograph of the person; (4) The person’s address of principal residence; (5) The person’s signature.”

I’m John Doe. You’re not.

I was born on –/–/—-, I’m male, my number 123-456-789. You’re different.

I live at 123 Fourth St., Billings, Mont. You don’t.

Whoops. We still don’t know whether you’re black or Jewish or Latino or Muslim. It’s still unconstitutional to ask.

Bruce A. Lohof is a native of Montana. A former professor and a retired diplomat, he lives in Vienna and in Red Lodge.

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