Should U.S. Citizens Be Required to Carry National ID Cards?

On the morning of September 11, 2001, two commercial passenger planes, hijacked by Al-Qaeda terrorists, slammed into the two towers of the World Trade Center. By 10:30 that morning, the two buildings lay in ruins, and more than 2,800 people were dead. At the same time the towers were burning, another hijacked passenger plane hit the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., killing almost two hundred people, and a fourth plane, which was reportedly headed for either the Capitol building or the White House, crashed in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and may have been forced down by the passengers. Not since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1942 had the United States been attacked on its own soil. Never before had so many American civilians lost their lives in a single incident. The effects of these acts of terrorism were immediate: fighter jets patrolled skies over many major cities in the United States, President George W. Bush declared a national state of emergency, and the armed forces were put on high alert.

In response to the events of September 11, the U.S. government instituted a number of programs calculated to combat terrorism and increase national security. Although many of these policies met little or no resistance, some—such as instituting military tribunals and setting up a network of civilian informants—caused so much controversy that they were either scaled back or eliminated entirely. One proposed program, a system of national identification cards, has attracted a great deal of attention. Asserting that it goes too far, detractors claim that the plan is an unwarranted extension of governmental power that would undermine people’s civil liberties; they point out that every time the country has curtailed civil liberties—for example, when Japanese Americans were imprisoned in internment camps during World War II—it has later wished it had not done so. Supporters of national identification cards say that they too are reluctant to undermine the principles on which the country was founded. They argue, however, that because the United States is at war, the need to protect civil liberties must be tempered by the very real security threats the country faces. For them, national identification cards represent a middle ground between those who would institute extreme measures to ensure security and those who believe that individual liberties must be preserved at all costs.