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May 05, 2005

Emmitt Till and the Panopticon

Emmitt Louis Till died about 50 years ago, but it has been decided that his body should be exhumed in order to discover new forensic evidence which might lead to others who might have participated in his killing.

In a related story, a registered Oklahoma sex offender was not captured in a Georgia arrest because of a 'failure' to match his fingerprints with all of his known aliases in the FBI database.

People keep mumbling about national ID cards and drivers license requirements. All three subjects are fueling the fire for construction of the American Panopitcon.

Since I'm a civil libertarian, as is most of the Old School, considering that it was our Civil Rights Movement that gave birth to that infrastructure, I have my reservations about panoptic security. That means that I recognize the tension between liberty and security. If I remember correctly, Patrick Henry didn't say "Give me security and give them death." I think we're on the same side of the fence.

And yet the more we try to get justice 50 years late, by using new techologies, the more we tip the balance towards building the perfect system of security. Sure murder is murder and there is not statute of limitations on that, but such matters cannot be taken in isolation. The proper legacy of Emmitt Till is not to be found in a murder conviction, but the moral conviction his death fired in 1950s America. To ask more of Till's dead body is to enable the panoptic forces.

Gladwell's best aphorism of 'Blink' comes to me in the form of the notion of panoptics and chess. Those who argue that enabling the electronic eyes ears and noses of the Justice Department (or the Defence Department or the Intelligence Services) will make us win, because we'll be able to see and hear everything. But consider a chess game. Surely there is nothing you can't see in a chess game. But does seeing everything help you win? No. You cannot see what your opponent is thinking. All you know are the moves he has made in the past.

Surely providing for our security is more complex than a chess game and it's better to see than to be blind. But there are limits at which the price of seeing is not worth the marginal benefit of security. We should be more robust in ourselves and stop wishing for intervention under all circumstances.

Posted by mbowen at May 5, 2005 10:04 AM

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We already have a national ID card. It's called Equifax/Transunion/Experian, and it knows far more than the government knows about us.

That said, I'd love a national ID card at this point along with sharp federal laws about its use. If a national ID was needed to apply for a credit card, and the feds made it a felony to supply a federal ID not your own or to accept a federal ID not associated with the person presenting it, I think id theft would dry up and blow away in the wind. I just had some guy apply for about 15 credit cards in my name, and I'm considered the victim, not the guys who gave this sucker goods on credit just because he claimed to be me. The guy made one mistake -- he checked into a hotel using my ID (or rather a bogus drivers licence) and stripped the room bare during the night. Burglary is not a white collar crime like ID theft, and I think he'll find that out when they catch him.

Posted by: UncleSmrgol at May 8, 2005 12:19 AM