Home  -  Back Issues  -  The Team  -  Contact Us
     Volume 6 Issue 12| March 30, 2007 |

   Cover Story
   View from the    Bottom
   Straight Talk
   Special Feature
   Dhaka Diary
   Book Review
   New Flicks
   Write to Mita

   SWM Home

Straight Talk

Paving the Way to a Totalitarian State?

Travelling used to be a pleasurable experience even a few years ago --- maybe not the sitting cooped up in a plane part of it, but the excitement and anticipation that goes hand in hand with the thought of going from one place to another. More recently many of us think twice before we decide to visit loved ones in another country or if there is any business to be done elsewhere. The reason for this is that you have to be prepared to be subjected to all kinds of interrogation and frequently are required to jump through numerous hoops to either obtain a visa to your destination of choice or even to acquire a passport. Not only do we have to deal with this kind of tiresome bureaucracy with its paperwork and officialdom where we are at the mercy of pen pushers and box tickers but nowadays have to accept the more and more stringent security measures set up by countries around the world. Post 9/11 we live in a world where people seem to view each other with a jaded eye, slightly cynical and slightly wary. Very often we are quick to judge and even quicker to condemn. This attitude is all the more exaggerated and taken to the extreme by many governments around the world.

These days the premise for certain draconian measures being introduced in different countries is for the benefit of the people it serves, however, it is slightly galling when those rules and regulations penalise those it claims to protect. It seems that soon people applying for a passport in the UK will have to go in person and find it mandatory to undergo an official interrogation where they will be required to answer numerous questions about their personal and professional life. These rigorous methods are being introduced as a security measure to avoid false claims and the issuing of passports to people who could prove to be a security breach. The government claimed that almost 10,000 British passports a year are dispatched to fake applicants. But what is depressing is that somehow these “fake applicants” seem to slip through the net and it is really the average Joe that gets caught in the jumble of red tape and bureaucracy. Just recently we heard of Dhiron Barot who was found to possess seven British passports in his own name and two false ones and incidentally he happened to be member of the British al-Qaeda but no one managed to pick up on this fact until a few weeks ago. On the other hand there are numerous people who get rejected every day due to the most inconsequential of reasons. It seems a little drastic to punish the general public for the crimes of a minority.

It really looks like we are heading for a totalitarian state with the very probable introduction of identity cards. In the UK, in about a year's time, i.e. 2008, everyone over the age of sixteen applying for a passport will have their details including a photograph of the card holder, their name, address, gender and date of birth on it. A microchip would also hold biometric information --- a person's fingerprints and iris or facial scans, which are unique to the individual, will also be added to a National Identity register (and we thought the film Minority Report was farfetched!). Then in 2009 the first identity cards will be issued to citizens. However, to soften the blow, the government is giving two years leeway from 2008 to 2010 for people to be able to opt out of having an ID card. But from 2010 anyone renewing or getting a passport will find it compulsory to get an ID card. The justification given by the government is that ID cards “will boost national security, tackle identity fraud, prevent illegal working and improve border controls”. Also it will assist in providing people with a reliable way of proving they are who they say they are. Whatever happened to the concept of “Presumption of innocence”? It makes one feel that not in the distant future, the idea that people are “innocent until proven guilty” will be changed to “guilty until proven innocent”. We are not even talking about any crime here --- just trying to get a passport and having to give concrete evidence just to identify ourselves. Even today, before the ID card proposal one cannot but help feeling like an offender for committing a heinous crime such as incorrectly filling in the application form or submitting a photograph which is just a shade darker than the official behind the counter would like it to be. Critics of the ID card scheme would argue that it is very reminiscent of George Orwell's book Nineteen Eighty Four and feel that it will be an infringement of civil liberties and very likely a waste of taxpayers' money.

Both camps have valid arguments for and against the implementation of the Identity Card System. Some people feel that if you have nothing to hide then there should be nothing to fear from the system. The flip side is that if somewhere down the line there is a breakdown of the system then a lot of innocent people may get dragged into a quagmire of misinformation and red tape.

We all want to live in a world that is safe and secure and I think most of us would be willing to pay a high price. But it also makes you wonder where we would draw the line and at what cost. Orwell's idea of Big Brother watching over the people is not as fanciful and implausible as it seems. Let us hope that the price we end up paying for a protected and sheltered existence is not our freedom itself.

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2007