Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Secret Laws.

File this one under "you learn something new every day." From an article published earlier this year in the Post-Gazette:
John Gilmore's splendid isolation began July 4, 2002, when, with defiance aforethought, he strolled to the Southwest Airlines counter at Oakland Airport and presented his ticket.

The gate agent asked for his ID.

Gilmore asked her why.

It is the law, she said.

Gilmore asked to see the law.

Nobody could produce a copy. To date, nobody has. The regulation that mandates ID at airports is "Sensitive Security Information." The law, as it turns out, is unavailable for inspection.

What started out as a weekend trip to Washington became a crawl through the courts in search of an answer to Gilmore's question: Why?

The recent lawsuit by John Gilmore, suing the government over his "right" to travel without the need to produce a government issued identity card has exposed a little known secret in this the Land of the Free: there exist secret laws in the United States, one which obliges all of us to show a piece of identity to board a plane. That we need to show ID to board a plane has been held for some time as common practice. That there is a "law" for this practice is less well-known. That the law should be secret seems downright bizarre.

Kevin Drum over at Political Animal raises all the red flags that one would expect upon hearing such Orwellian language (he uses Kafkaesque), and Orin Kerr over at The Volokh Conspiracy does his best to explain away the obvious fears (they're regulations, not laws). Of course, the conspiracy nuts on either side of the political aisle will soon start offering up their own theories of secret government (here we go again with the silent black helicopters), but in all seriousness, this little incident is rather telling. I won't pretend to be able to analyze the finer points of said laws (I would recommend the comments section on either blog for a dissection of laws vs regulations, passenger vs operator, etc.). I can, however, tell you that this news about secret laws only reinforces my belief that we do many things without ever questioning their usefulness or validity. I'm not advocating a universal refusal to show ID at the airport; but I am say that we all could use a rather large dose of skepticism when it comes to the government telling us what to do. There is a great deal of fear-mongering coming out of Washington since 9/11. We have agreed to "tighten" borders, show ID, practically undress at the airport, and allow ourselves to be surveilled by the authorities. We should at least see some results from this transparency of our lives. But instead there is less transparency from Washington and those whom it does arrest with its new powers, it almost inevitably sets free for lack of evidence. What's the use then of all these restrictions?

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