Friday, April 6, 2012

A Room with a Queue

I drove a friend to the NJMVC (which most folks still stubbornly call the DMV though it’s been years since the name change) the other day for her driving test. She passed. Home free? No, nothing is so simple anymore. Her ID documents (birth certificate, passport, transcript, etc) were declared inadequate because a bank statement she had brought as proof of her current address was more than 60 days old. So, we were off to the closest Bank of America for a current stamped and signed statement and then back again to the long lines at the NJMVC. By the end of a long day she had her license.

This sort of thing is not confined to the NJMVC. All of the persnicketiness about identity at the state and federal level in the US arrived after 9/11, supposedly for security reasons. It doesn’t help much. There are an estimated 11 million illegal aliens in the US who apparently are untroubled by the precautions. In truth, though assembling the documents is a major nuisance for honest citizens, there is not a single required document that can’t be counterfeited adequately on Photoshop. Dishonest folks (presumably the intended targets of security) aren’t much deterred. Nonetheless, there is no sign of any scaling back of such dubiously effective but definitely irritating measures.

Younger people, though as annoyed at queues and bureaucracy as the rest of us, are unaware of just how different this is from years past. I often marvel at the lack of security and surveillance with which I grew up. When I was in college the USA was not a tranquil place. The nation was at war in Vietnam. At the same time it was in a Cold War. There were racial, political, and anti-war riots. There were homegrown terrorist groups (e.g. the Symbionese Liberation Army and the Weather Underground) who robbed banks, planted bombs, and considered themselves insurrectionists. Yet, everyday security was so relaxed that I could and did walk into the Capitol Building in DC and wander around alone, including into the basement where there are paintings, getting no more in the way of a challenge than a smile from one aging security guard I passed. I sometimes took Shuttle flights between DC and Newark, for which there were no advance tickets. Completely anonymously, and with no preliminary metal detector or pat-down, any passenger just walked on the plane (either a DC9 or a 727) and bought a ticket from the flight attendant, just as on a commuter train; if a plane filled up, another one was added to the flight list. No names asked. At the local county courthouse, where nowadays everyone funnels through detectors and past guards at only two entrances, there were a dozen unlocked and unguarded entrances. Surveillance cameras were almost nonexistent outside of businesses at high risk for conventional crime, such as liquor stores and banks.

This changed over the course of the 70s thanks mostly to a series of airliner highjacks to Cuba and the Middle East. The Weather Underground also contributed by setting off a small bomb in a men’s bathroom in the Capitol. As we know too well, stricter measures didn’t stop politically motivated attacks.

Nowadays, we expect to be surveilled pretty much everywhere. Even when a traffic light changes to red while we’re still in an intersection, we’re likely to get a ticket in the mail accompanied by a photograph. We carefully empty our pockets of as much as a penknife if we have to enter any public building. We wear shoes we can remove and put on easily when we travel so they can be scanned. We need documents and more documents – and sometimes fingerprints.

It’s not at all clear we have made ourselves any safer as a result. I suspect we frustrate ourselves far more than we frustrate the plans of those who mean us harm: they’re very unlikely to be standing in line at the DMV.

For all the popular cheering of the “Don’t touch my junk!” guy a couple years ago, I doubt there is any chance of the rules easing anytime soon, if ever. In fact, now there is a firmly established security industry (including the government employees) to lobby against any changes. If an 80s scifi movie was prescient, though, those employees still face the possibility of redundancy through automation.

Robot Security Goes Haywire When Lightning Jolts the Mainframe. Don’t You Hate When That Happens?

When It’s Not Robots with Kelli, It’s Zombies


  1. You said it. I recently did my stint for jury duty, and the amount of security surprised me. Just to go into the courtyard behind the building and back in required a pass through a security checkpoint. Now I can understand this. I can imagine that judges and lawyers get threatened regularly, but it really brought home what kind of world we live in now, as apposed to a decade or two ago.

  2. Has it made us any safer? I really don't think so. (A threat to a lawyer -- as an example -- just gets diverted to outside the courthouse.) Perhaps it makes some of us feel safer. It's a high price to pay for that, though.