THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION'S announcement that U.S. citizens are soon going to need passports to get back into their country from Mexico and Canada, is being played as a way to keep Americans safer. But like most everything else this president has done in the name of security, the only things there will be more of if this measure goes through are bureaucracy, hassles for Americans who don't have passports and never needed them before to travel to Mexico or Canada, and bad feeling between the United States and its neighbors. Already, Canada has announced that it might require Americans to show passports before they can enter Canada.
The Homeland Conservative, a blog written by a "right-wing neoconservative" Canadian, makes a good point about the counterproductiveness of turning the United States into an isolationist fortress:
Granted, we need to be secure, we need to be safe, we need to be vigilant but not at the expense of our own freedom. America cannot barricade doors and bar her windows, refusing to allow friends and family inside, whilst expecting to conduct business as usual or join allies when it suits U.S. interests.
Such ideology will only alienate those closest to Lady Liberty. It will not ease concerns on the part of top allies that U.S. politicians are charting a go-it-alone course in foreign policy. The doors of friendship swing both ways.
This guy is pretty far out there in most of his political opinions, but on this much I think what he's saying is commonsense. You don't make yourself safer via policies that convey suspicion, mistrust, and even hostility toward the rest of the world. And although we all might be safest if we never left our homes, that's no way to live. Travel is the ultimate broadening experience; it almost always serves to help people of diverse backgrounds understand each other better. Yet the most immediate impact this policy will have is to reduce tourism -- ours and theirs. Many Americans who travel to Mexico or Canada for weekends or short vacations don't have passports and don't want them, either. College students wanting to go to Mexico or Bermuda on their spring breaks will chuck the idea if they have to get passports to do it. Canadians are likely to feel the same way.
Until now, Canadian citizens have been the only foreigners allowed to enter the United States without a passport. The U.S. has accepted a driver's licence, birth certificate or a certificate of citizenship instead.
Canadians make an estimated 60 million trips into the United States each year. I foresee a drastic drop in that number as these obsessed rules become effective. Canadians will not shell out $90 CND to for the occasional one-day shipping spree across the border. Nor will students deplete fun money for annual Spring Break revelry. Tourism will take another definitive hit.
Potential terrorists are probably the only demographic group who will not be deterred by the new passport requirement. Since when have terrorists been intimidated by the need to carry a passport? Back in February, 2002, the New York Times ran an article by Jeff Goodell about passport forgery. Goodell asked Alain Boucar, the director of Belgium's antifraud unit, how long it would take him to put someone else's photograph in Goodell's passport.
Boucar examines it. It's a standard United States passport, issued eight years ago, with a laminated photo page. ''Five minutes.''
He sticks his thumbnail into a corner of the laminate, showing me how you can peel it back. (You can loosen the laminate by sticking it in the freezer or a microwave oven -- it depends on the type of laminate -- or, better yet, by dissolving the adhesive with Undu, a product that is easily ordered on the Internet.) Boucar then points to the little blue emblem, called a guilloche, that overlaps the photo and the passport page and is supposed to make the photo difficult to remove. ''You might see a little line here. But if I do a good job, you would not notice.'' Of course, that person would have to be around the same age, height and weight as me, but Boucar's point is well taken: doing a passable job of doctoring a typical passport is not very hard.
Boucar then explains the tricks criminals use to fill in stolen blanks: how they feed passports into laser printers, for example. Or how they can create a perfectly good dry stamp -- an inkless stamp that leaves an embossed image on paper and is used to authenticate the passports of many countries -- by placing an old vinyl record over a passport marked with a real seal, then heating the record with an iron; the record is then pressed onto a fresh passport. Candle wax also works. As for ink stamps, they pose no challenge at all. Years ago, forgers would cut a fresh potato in half and use it to transfer a stamp from one passport to another. Today ''you just scan the page of a passport into a computer, print it out, then take it to a copy shop,'' Boucar says. ''They'll make you a rubber stamp in two minutes.''
Of course, the State Department has developed a high-tech biometric passport, and Belgium already has one. But the new U.S. passport raises security, privacy, and personal safety concerns that are potentially just as alarming as passport forgery.
I can't think of one positive result that could come out of requiring passports between friendly neighbor countries where none were required before. Bush and his groupies have a positive genius for coming up with the policies most likely to alienate people and make international relations worse. It really is absolutely astounding.