Sunday, May 28, 2006


Lewisham No2ID is the local branch of the national campaign against compulsory identity cards. The law has now been passed, so from 2008 you will have to attend an appointment to be photographed, have your fingerprints taken and iris scanned, or be fined up to £2500.

ID cards could still be killed off by mass non-compliance, as happened with the poll tax in the early 1990s, and No2ID is encouraging people to pledge to refuse to co-operate. More invasive surveillance is under discussion, including contactless or radio frequency ID chips in passports which can be read remotely, enabling the passport holder to be tracked without them even having to show their documents to anybody.

There are many arguments against ID cards, like the fact that they would actually make little difference against the threat in whose name they are justified – the July 7th bombers made no attempt to conceal their identity, presumably they wanted to be known and recognised as 'martyrs'.

But for me, there is a simple test to be applied to these and similar measures, which I call the Primo Levi test. Levi, who survived Auschwitz, reminded us that similar atrocities were always a possibility, and that we 'are so dazzled by power and prestige as to forget our essential fragility... close by the train is waiting'. In his excellent Between Camps, Paul Gilroy reflects that 'Levi’s argument should not be an open licnese to indulge in paranoia. It loses none of its force when we appreciate that the trains are not necessarily being loaded right now in our own neighbourhoods. Fascism is not permanently on the brink of assuming terroristic governmental power. His point is more subtle. If we wish to live a good life and enjoy just relations with our fellows, our conduct must be closely guided not just by this terrible history but by the knowledge that these awful possibilities are always much closer than we imagine. To prevent their reappearance we must dwell on them and with them'.

The Primo Levi test involves simply asking whether a power would make persecution (and maybe worse) easier if it fell into hands so inclined. It should be obvious that very few Jews in Europe would have survived the Holocaust if the Nazis had simply had to press a button to identify who and where they all were. Of course no one imagines that fascism is on the cards here (anymore than many imagined the possibility of the Holocaust in Germany beforehand), but recent history in various parts of the world hardly give grounds for confidence that anywhere is immune to the possibility of mass repression and state terror. In any event, Levi is surely right that the safest course of action is to assume that it could happen (even if in the remote future) and act accordingly.

All of this is quite apart from how similar powers are already being used within this country to criminalise human beings whose only crime is to be born to parents without permission to exist here – witness the fingerprinting of children under five in asylum centres in Croydon and Liverpool.

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