Opinion » Viewpoint

Identifying Ourselves

The silver lining in the present cloud may tell us who we are.

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Done any traveling lately? Those of us who have -- particularly to any of the nation's centerpiece cities on the East or West Coasts -- have noticed some differences. It isn't just the dogs and their camouflaged attendants at the airports. It isn't just the extra-early show-up times and the extra-long lines. It's also in the uniformed personnel (again, usually with canine companions), who turn up in the subway stations, train terminals, and other points of urban interchange.

Even if you haven't been anywhere, you've seen enough television or read enough papers to know about the escalating anthrax peril. How long before we take to donning surgical gloves just to open our own mail?

And now there is mounting talk of requiring a national identity card -- one that can be read with electronic sensors and can't be faked.

There is a high side to all this, of course -- a curious bonding that transcends former jealousies. When black and white Americans pass each other now in public places, there is likely to be a surge of comfort that didn't use to be there -- a recognition that, whatever else we may be or have been to each other, neither of us are likely to be terrorists from the remote and ever more mysterious Middle East.

And there's the rub: Whether we own up to it or not, we are all profiling now -- those of us in this newly configured majority. Even the swarthy of skin pass muster as soon as we recognize the reassuring Latino lilt of their syllables. Asian? No problem.

But for all the dissolving old barriers, there are the troubling new ones. Call a computer supply store and find yourself greeted across an anonymous telephone line by the disembodied, accented voice of someone named, say, Rashid, and you are face to face with the issue (ear to ear, rather, since it is -- both literally and figuratively -- about facelessness).

We are in the same state of affairs as pertained during the initial phase of our involvement in World War II, post-Pearl Harbor, when we thought we could identify the enemy in our midst. He -- or she -- was of visible Japanese ancestry and lived, probably, in or near one of the population centers of the West Coast. We all know what happened. The resulting relocation camps were an outrage -- something we of subsequent generations have always managed to feel righteous and superior about. And never mind that, among the innocent masses so interned, there were doubtless a few bona fide saboteurs. The same dubious success might well be had if at some point in the present crisis we should attempt the unseemly, unsavory, and ultimately impossible task of locking up every Muslim we can find.

We know that we can't do this. We know that in the act of doing so we would be harming ourselves -- and not just because a huge number of "them" would turn out, in every distinguishing legal and oral sense, to be "us" as well, citizens of the United States or on their way to being so.

As matters continue to complicate, the point may cease to be academic, but this dilemma, too, has its high side. It will force us to a more trying expedient than the national identity card. It will cause us to define ourselves and our civil heritage by feats of tolerance that even in peacetime require a leap of faith before they can metamorphose finally into acceptance of another's claim to common rights and a common destiny. It will force us to reinvent the idea of America -- and in the original mold.

When we have successfully done so, dismissing trivial and real fears alike, that will be the only certificate of national identity we'll need.

Jackson Baker is a senior editor of the Flyer.

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