Identity Cards

April 24, 1995|By RICHARD REEVES

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles. -- When I first lived here in the late 1970s, I thought it was California-funny that so many people usually paid by check for groceries or for just a candy bar. They'd write one out for a dollar or 49 cents, whatever.

As a New Yorker by blood, I was amazed that they trusted each other -- there was no call to the bank or some credit-office phone bank in North Dakota. It was just a smiley-face, ''Have a nice day."

The nice days are over, probably gone forever. If there were still some places where trust was coin, that ended Wednesday in Oklahoma City. A lot of things ended with the bomb that destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building and hundreds of lives in what we have decided to call ''the heartland,'' as opposed to New York, where bombings seem more in context.

Like most everyone I see, I am heartsick, for many reasons. I see this described as the end of innocence, though we should have known better long before this. This will change many things in the United States, beginning with the current immigration debate -- even though the evidence so far points away from foreign terrorism. Immigration doves, of which I am one, have lost to the new nationalists.

Many of the changes in America were already well under way. To cash a check in trusting California now, you have to show a photo-ID California driver license. If you do not drive, the Department of Motor Vehicles issues plastic identification cards so you can do the business of the day. So, in effect, California already has the kind of identity card -- ''Your papers, please?'' -- that Americans have always resisted as the internal passport of police states.

The California licenses have the usual magnetic strip across the back, and although officials swear that only relevant height and weight information is encoded in the strip, we all know that the things are capable of retaining every fact of a life plus the Encyclopedia Britannica.

And soon they will, I am almost certain. One of the results of this crime against the American soul will be some form of national identity card. Frankly, I don't have the energy to argue against national ID anymore, because I think there will be more horrors like this one, and it is essential to find terrorists. With luck we might even catch some before the terror.

I know there will be government and police abuses of such cards, but between the licenses and Social Security numbers, the phone records and credit applications of this huge and impersonal society, the information on each of us is already out there somewhere.

It's another triumph of technology, replacing neighbors. In the old days in smaller towns and less mobile times, people knew (and watched) each other, and reported to the police, who were neighbors, too.

Modern technology is probably the reason this happened. Terrorism is not the weapon of the many and the strong; it is the last resort, the sword of the few and the crazed. And now, whoever did this, we know it is here -- and the worst part of it will be restrictions we must put on our own freedoms.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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