The Damnable Modern Passport

John Torpey. The Invention of the Passport: Surveillance, Citizenship and the State. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Right. The Feds have plans for you. In the future, if they get their way, you will own a high-tech passport full of promise. It will be compact. The machine-readable data it contains will be unique and impossible to forge. The machines charged with reading it will be infallible and never suffer breakdowns. The old photo-based passport will be a thing of the past. The new passport will mean progress beyond your wildest dreams. The country, once vulnerable to malcontents, innumerable illegals, mafiosi, terrorists, brooding novelists and other such vermin, will be made safe once and forever and for all time.

The means to this end is a high-tech passport equipped with a little harmless identification chip. This brilliant device will prove once and for all that you are who you claim to be. It will store digital photographs, digital finger prints and, to make assurance doubly sure, digital scans of the human iris. Of course, that innocent word u2018chip' is somewhat of a misnomer in this context. The damn thing takes on some of the properties of a computer. When the chip is caressed by a certain radio wave, all of its digital data is transmitted to a machine by means of a miniature antenna embedded in its gossipy innards. You will be waved on your carefree way by the charmers of the world's customs agencies.

Naysayers, of course, exist. They argue that the passport readers now in existence can only read these new passports somewhere between 30 to 60% of the time. They further object that facial recognition technology is less than perfect. They believe that the lack of encryption of the data on these chips permits them to be read by virtually anyone with an interest in your person and your purse: airlines, banks, hotels and the always ingenious members of the criminal classes. "Criminals will have a useful tool for identity theft. Terrorists will be able to know the nationality of those they attack."

How did we get into this mess?

Early humanity, like the birds and beasts of the field, roamed at will over the land – always given the proviso that humans, like many other mammals, are a jealous territorial species. This early freedom disappeared with the raising of walls and creation of early states and ministates. "Let letters be given me to the governors beyond the river," we read for our edification in Nehemiah, II, 7, circa 300 B.C. The Magna Carta of 1215 granted the Englishman his freedom of movement and departure. What one Law giveth the other Law taketh away, and a rascally English statute of 1381 limited these same rights to peers, merchants and soldiers. (18). The Prussian Imperial Police Ordinance of 1548 imperiously banned beggars and vagrants as threats to domestic peace, law and order. (18) The implied inevitable causation, it seems to me, is more forced than real. The panhandler, also a member of the jealous territorial species, normally prefers to work alone on his own turf.

The basic issue is that the state lodges a robust claim on our taxes in times of peace and yet still more taxes and a rapacious demand for our bodies in times of war. The history of state busybodies in pursuit of these two charming aims is long, instructive and makes for generally painful reading. The French Revolution is a case in point, and "passports and certificates of residence became extremely important documents as conscription became a way of life." (21) It did not begin that way. Early French revolutionaries overflowed with the love of mankind, and they were full of good intentions.

In its early generous phases, some revolutions are marked by a sense of fun and frolic, and its wizards often propose joyful legislation to improve the lot of sinful man. As one of the first actions of the Bolsheviki was reportedly the removal of the tax on vodka, so the early French revolutionaries agitated to ensure the freedom of domestic and international travel. On September 13, 1791, the "Marquis de Lafayette proposed – and the Assembly greeted with sustained applause – the abolition of all controls, especially including passports, on the movements of the French citizenry, as well as an end to the order mandating the pursuit and arrest of migrs that had been imposed" earlier in June of that year. (29) This was an act of remarkable generosity towards their natural enemies, the aristocrats, landowners, and the prevailing plutocracy; but as the ranks of the migrs swelled beyond the Rhine, presumably minus all their real and most of their personal property, and they defiantly raised the black flag, and the talk turned to war and counter-revolution, generosity was replaced by malignity. On November 9, 1791, the same emigrés were said to be guilty of a conspiracy against France and patrie and as such subject to the death penalty. (30) Louis XVI, then still with his head on his shoulders, promptly vetoed the legislation.

The heated debate continued in the French Assembly. One Thuriot, a man without a given forename and hence an object of curiosity and even suspicion as is only right for a man without a given name, was a partisan of passport controls. His measure soon came up for debate if debate it can be called: "By now, the Assembly was churning with controversy, and a proposal to adopt Thuriot's amendment by acclamation drove the house wild. Pandemonium had erupted in the chamber in response to his proposal to require those wishing to leave the Kingdom to carry a passport in which that intention was inscribed. One legislator insisted on a roll-call vote, calling the provision u2018blood-thirsty'; another denounced it as u2018destructive of commerce and industry, and contrary to the interests of the people.' That steadfast opponent of passport controls, Girardin, returned to the attack, demanding that the Assembly u2018not be permitted to destroy commerce and freedom without discussion. . .'" (41) Yet when it was all said and done, the French were under the passport yoke once again, and the foreigners within France, diplomatic missions excepted, were placed under special surveillance and they were suffered to remain on French soil only if they remained on their good behavior. The punishment for bad behavior, however defined, was expulsion. And so it came that the "optimistic cosmopolitanism of the early days of the revolution [was] obliterated; and the high-flown ambiguities of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen had been resolved in favor of the nation-state." (55) War breeds bureaucracies and regulations beyond measure and it is the graveyard of hard-won liberties.

In the middle of this endless human drama of liberty versus control and repression, hope and progress appeared on the continent of Europe in the improbable form of the North German Confederation and Prussia the Damned. In the fullness of time, the Germans enjoyed liberal rights to travel analogous to those of the British. The beginning of the process was not promising.

During the Napoleonic wars from 1813–1815 Prussia put the screws on foreigners and obliged them to get passports and to have them checked with almost military precision. You wonder how many foreign spies were frustrated and hamstrung by this requirement, but the rationale for repression does not normally call for iron-clad proofs and grows very nicely in a morass of fateful and fearful conjectures. Furthermore the Prussians, as opposed to the foreigners, were treated with paternalistic indulgence. Prussians, it was said, were known for their laudable devotion (rhmliche Anhnglichkeit) to the state of Prussia, and the new passport regulations "were remarkably lenient towards the Prussian subjects themselves." (61)

In the remainder of the nineteenth century a series of events happily conspired to reduce the proliferation of passports and visas. They included a state of relative peace on the continent of Europe – only one Prussian/Austrian war and the Franco-Prussian war – the rise and development of modern factories, and the construction of railroads. The wars themselves were mercifully short and therefore did not manacle mankind seemingly forever. The rise of factories meant a decisive loosening of the old feudal duties and obligations tied to the land, and the numerous passengers on railroads put a burden on the police charged with the examination of travel documents. The Swiss abolished visa and passport requirements in 1862. The Swiss police observed, among other things, that the police personnel "have made but few discoveries" (77) in the course of the zealous pursuit of the passengers on trains, surely a damning indictment all by itself.

Remarkable enough, the Prussian Junkers , those horny-handed sons of the soil and honorary members of the hunting-shooting fraternity, were also enlightened delegates to the North German Confederation Reichstag and joined the bourgeoisie in a new round of legislative legerdemain designed to reduce the passport nuisance. In the 1860's the outcry reached a crescendo. "Up and down the country, liberal industrialists and opinion-makers demanded freedom of entry into any trade…freedom of movement, and freedom of settlement. Burgeoning industry needed hands, and these freedoms were essential to ensuring that it could have them." (78) In the 1867 legislation bearing on travel, the North German Confederation voted to remove from the simple act of travel, "the suspicion and police surveillance that had previously attended it, especially for the lower classes." (88) Passport restrictions fell by the wayside and very soon "passport requirements fell away throughout Western Europe, useless paper barriers to a world in prosperous motion." (92)

In the United States, passport controls and immigration measures took a meandering course. Travel within the continental U.S. was, of course, free and unfettered. The somewhat surprising absence of the Federal Colossus at this time made itself felt even in the formal control of movement. Early passports were issued by individual states and even municipalities. (95) In 1856, Congress asserted an exclusive right to issue passports by legislative fiat. The American Civil War period receives only a few passing words, but I suspect that a close examination of the travel restrictions planned and informally imposed during the bloody conflict, especially on independent journalists and other such troubling vagabonds and subversives, would have led to a mound of amusing, disconcerting, and damning discoveries. The year 1882 marked a dual achievement for in that year European immigration into the U.S. simultaneously reached its peak and the United States passed the Immigration Act of 1882 which rigorously and piously excluded entry to convicts, lunatics, and idiots as well as the nefarious poor destined for the welfare rolls. (96, 97) How many enterprising convicts, lunatics, idiots and paupers attempted to enter the U.S. is not related.

The twentieth century was a passport chamber of horrors. In Britain the passport was resurrected in 1905 to counter "the threat of a large-scale influx of East European Jews." (112) The Aliens Restriction Act of 1914 gave the government additional power to exclude aliens. (112) During World War I, France and Germany both reinstituted passport and visa controls. Italian legislation was even more draconian. It actually revoked its stock of existing passports to prevent the flight of reluctant conscripts. (114) The government proved finely attuned to the non-serviam mood of its potential soldiers. In the teeth of its precautions, about 290,000 Italians faced courts martial in World War I, generally for desertion. (115-116) The United States enacted restrictive legislation which prevented Korean and further Chinese and Japanese immigration. And so it was that the glorious war to end all war – the greater war's misery the greater the pious cant of silver-tongued scoundrels – put an end to the laissez-faire era in international travel and labor migration. Horrors were about to begin.

The postwar and interwar period was in some respects even worse. Some 1.7 million Russians, Germans, Poles, Rumanians, Balts, Lithuanians and Letts exiled themselves or were driven out of the Soviet Union during and after the civil war and the contrived famines of 1919–22. (124) The Soviets took long-distance revenge and revoked the passports of the impoverished Russian and other exiles. (124) Later, largely through the efforts of Frijdtof Nansen, the exiles were given "Nansen passports" which gave them an official identity but did not confer citizenship. (127–128)

The Soviets introduced that monstrous innovation, the internal passport. Stalin's brutal collectivization policy (1928–1933) starved the peasants who, motivated by hunger and despair, took part in a massive population shift from the farms to the towns where, of course, they were perceived in an even more unfavorable light than the beggars and vagrants of imperial Prussia. Quite clearly and hideously, the starved and huddled masses were the outward and visible signs of a murderous internal political failure. Malcolm Muggeridge covered himself with glory at the time by reporting what his eyes told him in the North Caucasus and Ukraine – the misery of landless peasants suffering from military terrorism, disease, starvation, and death. Stalin accordingly re-introduced, in 1933, the internal passport to control the everyday life of the Soviet citizen, an instrument which became the heart and soul of police power in the Soviet Union. (130–131)

The rise of the Nazi dictatorship saw a feverish rise in malign legislation and the zealous keeping of records. Their first intended victims in 1933 were Eastern Jews, victims of Polish persecution, who had entered Germany between 1918 and 1933. Many, for some inexplicable reason, had not obtained German citizenship. "As a result, the Nazis were to discover that even they could not revoke the citizenship of those who were not citizens." (132) Later, in 1935, they issued a workbook which documented the working life of the bearer. The data was also entered in a national registry. In 1937 they rescinded the North German Confederation 1867 law which had abolished the tedium of passports in times of peace. (134) Residential registration followed in 1938 and those who had filled out the forms were required to possess documentation that the requirement had been met. Jews were identified as Jews by the end of the same year. The noose was tightening for all.

After the end of World War II, the existing passport rules and regulations came under renewed scrutiny. Sardonic observers pointed to the astonishing and humbling fact that "despite the remarkable technical achievements of the twentieth century, the journey from Paris to London by rail and sea could be done in less time at the beginning of the century than in 1953." (146) Furthermore, was it really true that the clever criminal classes were held back by passport and visa restrictions? In a 1951 debate in the Bundestag, the Minister of the Interior confessed that "All the experts essentially recognize that the really dangerous people almost always find a way to get in and out. Passport requirements, and especially visa requirements, thus result in a heavy burden on the movement of the broad mass of innocent travelers. An enormous – and largely useless – administrative effort is expended trying to get a few wrongdoers by issuing millions of passports and visas to innocent people." (148) The sad truth may well be that the villains almost always get through. They have a gift for it, and they take a dour professional pride in thumbing their noses at the bureaucracy and especially the police.

It was, as always, practical realities in a time of general European peace rather than abstract argument which won the day for travel without the passport nuisance. The Common Market needed the manpower resources of united Europe. The internal passport fell by the wayside. It was, as always, a slow and tortuous process. Article 48 of the 1957 European Economic Community treaty proposed to eliminate passport controls. Decades later, the 1985 Schengen Accords enabled the citizens of France, Germany and the Benelux countries to travel freely within Europe. At about the same time, I seem to recall, there was a delightful innovation. The border crossings and the hideous huts that formerly housed the poor miserable border guards were left to rot by the roadside, and even non-Europeans like myself enjoyed travel without border restrictions. The Germans, always fearful of the terrorist threat, issued machine-readable passports which they claim cannot be forged. (153) The British have also issued machine-readable passports since 1988.

The outline of our future is reasonably clear. The newly declared War on Terror (10 years? 50 years?) signifies the retention of portentous and overt controls, no matter how paltry the discoveries made by the police. The abominable passport, especially the machine-readable passport, will be the rule in the twenty-first century. One hundred countries, including such apparent technological vacuums like Albania, Jamaica and the Maldives, now issue them. Millions of citizens will spend billions of dollars to identify themselves to the police in an intricate process which assumes that they are malcontents, criminals and terrorists unless they can prove otherwise. There goes the assumption of innocence. Whether the new passports can be forged or not remains to be seen. Ominous straws in the wind indicate otherwise. Identity theft is currently the crime of choice of the criminal classes, and it is growing faster than any other. Furthermore, 122,269 British passports were lost or stolen in the year ending March 31, 2001.

In the United States the merry forging of new laws proceeds at a riotous pace. Section 414 of law HR3162, also known as the "U.S.A. Patriot Act of 2001" specifies that "particular focus should be given to the utilization of biometric technology and the development of tamper-resistant documents. This entry/exit system will record the entry and departure of every non-U.S. citizen arriving in the United States and will notify the INS [Immigration and Naturalization Service] whether foreign nationals departed the United States under the terms of their visas. The provision requires that the information obtained from the entry/exit system be interfaced with intelligence and law enforcement databases to enable authorities to focus on apprehending those few who do pose a threat." In order to focus on those few who do pose a threat, the authorities will need to know who does not pose a threat, which surely includes all the rest of us. We were first informed by the appropriately named Robert O'Harrow, writing in the Washington Post on February 1, 2002, that “Federal aviation authorities and technology companies will soon begin testing a vast air security screening system designed to instantly pull together every passenger’s travel history and living arrangements, plus a wealth of other personal and demographic information.”

How brilliant, brave, indomitable, resourceful, and lavish with our money after the fact are our masters. Beware. It is the least you can do.

March 11, 2005