WASHINGTON — Today, we learn the conclusions of a special task force examining the merits of a national, tamper-proof ID card. The task force, set up by the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, is working closely with various federal agencies and Congress. I hope it won't dance around the issue, fearing public reaction, and will recommend outright that everyone within this great country be required to be able to prove their identity.
As a sociologist, I realize that many Americans have long had a visceral reaction against mandatory ID cards, which they associate with the "domestic passports" used in the old Soviet Union. The right to be left alone is widely linked to the notion that a person has a right to remain anonymous unless authorities can show cause to suspect the person committed a crime.
But Americans increasingly recognize that one cannot fly, drive, go overseas, enter many public buildings, or, often, even cash a check without identification. To say that these are voluntary ID cards is a joke to anyone who must drive to work or fly to conduct business. IDs are so widely required that motor vehicle departments issue nondrivers licenses.
Terrorists and criminals are also covered by the de facto requirement to have an ID. The problem is that they have many, one for each alias. While most Americans have no reason to purchase false IDs (unless they are college kids trying to sneak into a bar), they are easily obtainable by terrorists and other criminals.
Social Security and green cards are sold in border towns for about $50. Local authorities readily issue birth certificates with any name - the favorite avenue to a false passport. Before Sept. 11, several states - including Virginia and Florida - were notorious for providing cheap driver's licenses for people out of state. So issuing fraud-resistant ID cards will take nothing from law-abiding Americans, while hindering law-breakers.
First among those to be greatly inconvenienced, thanks be given, will be terrorists. Most of the 19 hijackers had multiple IDs, which they used to open bank accounts, get pilot licenses, and buy airline tickets, all without revealing their true identity. Public authorities now call for tracking systems that will allow us to find out if a person who came to study in the US is really taking classes on some campus, or if people who came on a tourist visa left after its term expired.
But all this is impossible unless we can establish the identity of the person we are tracing. If a person can enter the US as Mohammed Laden and live here as Murphy Liden, we will have a hard time finding terrorists.
Beyond making it much harder for terrorists to abuse our free society, tamper-proof, national ID cards should be embraced for all the other good service they will do. Currently, there are some 300,000 criminals on the lam in the US. These are not mere suspects, but convicts who somehow escape the jurisdiction of the courts, say, by fleeing prison. Many of them commit additional crimes, because they know they're heading for a stiff jail sentence anyhow. One of the best ways to get them off the streets is to introduce foolproof ID cards.
Such cards will also help ensure that people who work in child-care centers and schools are not child abusers or sex offenders. This is not an idle threat. When six states did screen such employees, more than 6,200 individuals convicted of serious crimes were found among those seeking child-care jobs. Elder-care facilities face a similar challenge when they try to screen out people with a record of violence. No ID - no valid screening.
Also, validated IDs would greatly curtail the price of identity theft, which cost the public at least $750 million in 1997. They would also shave income tax fraud committed by those who file multiple tax returns at an estimated cost of more than $1 billion per year, and welfare fraud amounting to $10 billion annually in entitlement programs alone.
Indeed, the public is wising up. While in 1993 a minority (39 percent) favored ID cards and a majority (53 percent) objected to them, a post-9/11 poll finds a sea change. Now 70 percent favor a national identity card to show to police upon request and only 1 out of 4 (26 percent) oppose it. You may say all this makes sense if one could really have a foolproof ID card. The good news is that new ways of identifying people do not involve old-fashioned pieces of paper with ugly mug shots. Now they're based on biometrics. Luckily, no two people - even identical twins - have identical faces or irises. Computers can now recognize these.
We live in a new world, and now must make some careful adjustments to our way of life. To require everyone within our borders to identify themselves in a reliable manner is a reasonable step in the right direction.
Amitai Etzioni, a professor at George Washington University, is the author of 'The Limits of Privacy' (Basic Books, 1999).