Monday, September 30, 2013

Passports: An abuse of human rights and common decency

* Passports: An abuse of human rights and common decency,
Where Are Your Papers?
by Wendy McElroy
“Your papers!” In old movies, the demand is barked at trembling 
travelers by a Nazi with a guttural accent. If the demand is made in 
the opening scene, then the audience knows immediately that they 
watching a totalitarian state in which travelers are in danger.
“Your papers!” now rings out at every American airport and border 
crossing. The accent is different but travelers need to recognize 
with equal immediacy that a totalitarian state is playing out in 
front of their eyes, and they must be careful.
A passport is where the security theater begins. Indeed, without a 
passport those who wish to fly or cross a border are not “allowed” 
to be scanned, searched, interrogated, or undergo a plethora of 
other indignities imposed by uniformed thugs. The hoops through 
which passport carriers jump are all prelude to “permitting” them to 
exercise a right belonging to every freeborn person: the right to 
Things were not always this way. It is important to remember that 
there once was a world in which people traveled freely across 
borders without paperwork to visit families, pursue education, 
conduct business, and mingle. Freedom worked once. It enriched the 
world economically, culturally, and psychologically.
European nations pioneered many if not most aspects of the modern 
passport. The passport as an official permission or protection, and 
not merely as identification, arose because of armed conflicts. In 
the 17th century, sea voyaging was key to trade, travel, and the 
maintenance of empire. With some frequency, war interrupted that 
flow. Therefore, neutral vessels were granted passports or “sea 
letters” from a port of departure, which permitted them to journey 
in safety.
By the mid-19th century, mandatory passports had largely disappeared 
from Europe and Asia, with Czarist Russia and the Ottoman Empire 
being prominent exceptions. The change was largely due to three 
factors. First, governments were pressured to open up borders so 
that goods and services could flow across an increasingly 
industrialized Europe. Second, the period between the last 
Napoleonic War (1815) and World War I was unusually peaceful. Third, 
railroads now dominated travel. Their speed and the sheer number of 
travelers made traditional methods of checking documents 
Thus, with trade and peace, mandatory passports declined. 
War brought them back to life. With World War I, European nations 
once more imposed requirements not only to identify “enemies of the 
state” (e.g., spies or the citizens of belligerents) but also to 
control the outward flow of skilled labor in order to maintain their 
own workforces. In short, passports once again became social 
controls and, like the United States, many European nations 
maintained their requirements after the War. 
World War II made passports mandatory on a virtually worldwide 
basis. Although passport requirements loosened once more after the 
WWII, the war on terror in the wake of 9/11 has raised those 
requirements to unprecedented levels. The ebb and flow of passports 
is that of war itself.
The American passport was also rooted in war, specifically the 
American Revolution (1775-1783). The first one was issued in 1783; 
based on the French “passport,” it was designed and printed by 
Benjamin Franklin. It was a single page with a description of the 
bearer(s) and his or their signature(s). For example, when John 
Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and John Jay acted as ministers 
plenipotentiary in traveling to Great Britain to seal the terms of 
peace, all three names were on one passport. It was addressed “TO 
ALL Captains or Commanders of ships of war, privateers, or armed 
During the Articles of Confederation period (1783-1789), passports 
were issued but not required. When the US Constitution was ratified, 
creating a new government, passports continued to be issued but not 
required. Many American states and cities also issued their own 
“voluntary” passports until 1856 when the Department of State 
exerted a federal monopoly, ostensibly to eliminate confusion.
Nevertheless, passports were not mandatory except for a period 
during the American Civil War (1861-1865) and during World War I 
(1914-1918). The latter can be seen as the beginning of the current 
American passport. On December 15, 1915, President Woodrow Wilson 
issued Executive Order No. 2285, “[r]equiring American citizens 
traveling abroad to procure passports.” 
This was followed in 1918 by an act of Congress granting the 
president authority to require passports during time of war. 
Passports remained mandatory until early 1921.
Thereafter, the United States continued its “no-passport-required” 
travel policy until another war: World War II (1939-1945). In 1941, 
passports became mandatory for travel abroad and remain so to this 
day. (Travel to Canada used to be an exception; until recently, 
proof of citizenship was all that was required to cross the border.)
Passports clearly function as an essential and effective means 
through which a state can control the person and property of its 
residents. Consider the United States. No one can legally leave 
without one.
And yet passports can be denied for a myriad of reasons that have 
nothing to do with being “an enemy of the state” but rest strictly 
on statutory grounds. Common reasons for denial include owing money 
to the IRS, a federal arrest, a state-criminal court order existing, 
a drug arrest, being on parole or probation. Law-enforcement 
databases are routinely checked against both passports and 
applications to weed out those who have committed such offenses as 
being more than $2,500 behind on child-support payments. Passports 
can also be revoked for several reasons, although revocation is far 
less common.
Those who meet the legal requirements for a passport move on to the 
next stage of social control. After handing over documents, a 
traveler is questioned about the reasons for travel, how much money 
he carries, his occupation, and virtually any other question a 
border agent wishes to ask. The traveler’s person and property are 
“searched” in various ways, including a strip search at the agent’s 
discretion. If the traveler questions or evinces disapproval, then 
he could be denied the “right” to board a plane, thus wasting an 
expensive ticket. Or he may be pulled aside for special treatment, 
including fines or interrogation by the police.
Requiring a passport as the key to freedom of movement is akin to 
gagging someone while maintaining that he retains freedom of speech.
The passport has grown into what is arguably the single most 
powerful tool of totalitarian America, second only to law 
enforcement itself. It no longer pretends to protect individuals; 
not a single terrorist has been apprehended as a result of passport 
checks. But it does cement the totalitarian state. The mandatory 
passport should be reviled and rejected as an abuse of human rights 
and common decency. A nation that requires one cannot be free.
Wendy McElroy ,
for The Daily Reckoning
Ed. Note: Wendy McElroy is a Canadian born individualist anarchist 
and individualist feminist. She was a co-founder along with Carl 
Watner and George H. Smith of The Voluntaryist in 1982. Her articles 
are widely published on libertarian websites. A version of this 
column originally appeared on on September 7, 2011. 

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