So goes the song, anyway. You know the song (I won’t link). It gets played everywhere on July 4th, so you’ve probably heard it recently. Lots of people like it; almost everyone knows it.
Free. Freedom. We place a whole lot of cultural and political baggage on those terms here in the America. Heck, we even call ourselves “LAND of the Free.” If that doesn’t tell you we’ve got a lot invested in the perception of ourselves as a free people, I don’t know what would. In comparison to a number of places on the globe, we are indeed quite free by comparison, and that’s a good thing. But, as the libertarian types are perennially reminding us, freedom isn’t free. They tend to mean that in the “we have to go spend trillions killing brown people in some remote corner of the globe periodially” sense of the word, when they say it.
I tend to think that particular interpretation of the phrase is overused and overemphasized. But it’s true in a much more fundamental way, as well. Billy Bragg (a Brit, no less), put it very well indeed a long time ago in one of his songs: “you can fight for democracy at home, and not in some foreign land.” He could just as easily have substituted “freedom” for “democracy”; the libertarians and wingnuts do that themselves often enough. What he meant was: it doesn’t do us much good to try spreading freedom across the globe if we’re not making sure we keep it as strong right here as it’s been in the past. That’s why this bit of news was so disturbing.
In February of this year, the State Department proposed a new passport application form. Everyone knows what a passport is, even if not that many people in the United States have one. I have one, though I think it’s lapsed. However, you may not be aware if you haven’t considered traveling farther than Disneyworld in a while that the US government, in the wake of 9/11, now requires a passport for travel even into Mexico or Canada, even for a “just-over-the-border-for-the-day” sort of trip. Obviously, they would also require one if you wanted or needed to leave the country to go to any farther-off destination, for any reason.
In the past, it wasn’t all that hard to obtain a passport. It was a bit of a hassle, but not significantly more than obtaining a driver’s license required. Not anymore. Or, I should say, not if this particular set of proposed rule changes and accompanying biographical questionnaire become the standard. Remember, providing false statements on a passport application is a violation of law and is punishable under 18 U.S.C. § 1001 and/or 18 U.S.C. § 1542. The penalty varies, but could be as high as ten years (plus fine), assuming the government didn’t think the reason you provided false statements on your passport application was “to facilitate an act of international terrorism,” in which case, it could be up to 25 years, or up to 20 if they suspect you of making false statements in pursuit of a potential narco-trafficking offense.
I guess you takes your chances with whether the government is willing to say they think you were doing either of those things. Better shave and wear a tie when you go through customs.
Well, OK, those are some harsh penalties, you say…but I’m not a criminal and I don’t act like one. And I won’t be providing any false statements on my passport application. So if I’ve nothing to hide, what’s the problem? Have a closer look at page 2 of the application, questions 5-12. If you happened to either not be born in a medical facility (like a hospital), or your birth was not recorded within one year for some reason, those questions require you to answer things like the following:
9. Did your mother receive pre-natal or post-natal medical care?
How many people know such facts about their mother during the time of their own gestation? Maybe you do. Maybe your mother regaled you with stories of getting ultrasounds. But could you answer the follow-up questions?:
Hospital or other facility:
Name of Doctor:
Dates of appointments:
I’m guessing not many could. I sure couldn’t, no matter how much was at stake. Remember, if this proposed form becomes adopted and you decide you’d like to be able to travel outside the borders of this country, you are REQUIRED to provide this information if you were born outside of a hospital or your birth was not recorded within one year. “N/A” won’t be an acceptable response. They’ll take “yes” or “no” for question nine…and if you are wrong, it’s a violation of law. What if your parents are no longer living? Would anyone else you know well enough to telephone or write to have information this detailed, with certainty? I certainly wouldn’t.
The point (other than to raise an alarum about this specific change to your own ability to leave the country at will – for they will not let you leave without a passport, even for a day trip to Mexico) is: next time you get ready to sing about how you’re proud to be an American, where at least you know you’re free, make sure you’ve done what you can to ensure that remains true.