“Your papers, please!”
Dramatic music plays, the camera position shifts to a close-up, and we the viewers are captivated by the suspense. This evening scene from a movie set perhaps in the days leading up to the last great European war could well be a decisive one. The questioner, perhaps a suspicious secret policeman, or just a regular policeman doing his duty, has demanded to see identification papers. There is the sound of rain falling in the background, but this natural pitter-patter does not comfort us, for we know that the hatted man and necklaced woman who have been accosted possess forged identification papers. Will the forgery stand scrutiny? Or will the alarm be raised, and the precarious existence of the youthful lovers extinguished?
Let us leave this rain-scented image for a while. Till around a century ago, in many parts of the world, one could travel without personal identification papers, even crossing national borders. A former army officer, Franz von Papen, who made it to the highest political offices of the Weimar Republic has testified to that. That state of affairs has changed. Today, there are a great many countries where one needs to carry a personal identification card constantly, and countries where one may get stopped by the police and asked to produce such a card, at any time.
Back to our imperilled duo. Our man is not afraid, in the best traditions of male heroes. In the same vein, his only worry is that his weak female companion with the gentle curls will not be able to survive the terrible ordeals they might have to shortly endure. Not having papers can mean imprisonment, execution or transportation to a labor camp; torture, starvation and dysentery are in the offing.
That is bad, but that is not the entirety of it. Two articulate intellectuals of the previous century, Stefan Zweig and Arthur Koestler, have written about the degradation of having to wait in the foyers of petty bureaucrats in order get a stamp on a piece of paper, to fill out forms in triplicate, to answer absurd questions, being sent away, being recalled, having to produce letters of reference from barely accessible sources, being compelled to reveal intimate details to strangers, being shouted at only because one is a foreigner, being given only temporary reprieves, always being on probation, being always threatened with expulsion, with imprisonment, and always being humiliated. That was their account; coincidentally both were Jews, both loved Vienna, both were exiles and both were potential targets of a secret police. That particular secret police has been disbanded and Vienna is now safe for Jews. For many millions of people, however, the debasement chronicled by Zweig and Koestler remains a fact of life today, from partly-secured visa interview rooms, to soulless offices where residence papers are extended, to cavity searches, to endless forms with exasperating questions, to being mocked in languages one barely understands – and not everyone has the luxury of a university education and the ability to express themselves well in multiple tongues – to processes that are far from logical, to having to risk much for a chance at a future life with dignity, to airports where suspicious eyes compare passport-size photographs to what is claimed to be a man.
And even more – depending upon which part of the world one is sent away to, one could be blown up by a marketplace bomb, executed by the police, catch malaria, die from excruciating indigence or be enslaved. One can be torn away from family, from friends, from a lover, from a language – all because one does not have the right papers.
There are benefits for governments and police forces to make the citizenry carry compulsory papers. Josephs Goebbels and Stalin probably list them out neatly in one of their notebooks. But perhaps one day, electronic surveillance tools will obviate the need to make people carry pieces of paper. (Of course, it would still be useful to maintain the fiction, to give people the illusion of privacy if they throw away or change their papers.) Perhaps that day has already arrived, or is not too far away, given what Edward Snowden, a benefactor of the race, has indicated to us. Curiously, the so-called universal declaration of human rights too calls for the right to a nationality, as if human dignity and personal liberties were intricately bound to the existence of citizenship papers.
Whatever might be the advantages of compulsory personal identification papers, we must not let them be a pre-condition to human dignity and personal liberties. As a reminder, here is a simple card that can be printed, folded, laminated and carried about upon one’s person.
Of coure, you probably want to have this done in other, relevant languages. In Dutch, you might want to try, “De houder van deze kaart is een mens”. The German and Hindi versions of the papers follow.
These cards are transferable. They are valid without photographs and biometric chips. They are to be issued free of charge. Copying is permitted. Such conditions are an abomination to secret policemen and bureaucrats everywhere. But what do we lovers of freedom and dignity care about the tastes of slaves!
These are simple pieces of paper, not backed by fleets of aircraft carriers, camel-loads of capital, or mindless hordes with automatic weapons. But perhaps they do not need to be. The values of human dignity, personal liberty and tolerance have a legitimacy that does not need brute force to back it up.