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Sometimes I wonder how much of homeland security consists of securing the homeland and how much is an obedience test.
Our scene shifts to Denver, where Deborah Davis, 50, is in a bit of a pickle because she refused to show her ID to security guards who boarded the Regional Transportation District Bus 100 on her morning ride to work. The bus crosses through the Federal Center, a sprawling installation of government buildings. Signs there declare that anyone entering must show valid, government-issued identification. They are considerably smaller than the large banners reading "Public Welcome."
Ms. Davis had no plans of getting off the bus at any of its stops at the center. She was passing through. That a public bus happened to cross a federal installation was, to her way of thinking, a mere happenstance. Early in her career as a public transit rider, she complied.
"They kind of glanced at it," she said. "They didn't even look at it. It just seemed like anything in your hand, they'd just walk by you. If you didn't have your ID, they'd leave you alone."
In the coming days, Ms. Davis began to feel as if her morning and evening bus rides were beginning to pass not through a federal office complex, but 1975 Argentina. The arbitrariness of things bothered her, too.
"It seemed to be subjective. A girl told me one day she was on there and she didn't have her ID and there were three kids on there and they made them get off and let her stay on. It seemed kind of subjective," she said.
For a few weeks she simply told the guards she didn't have any identification with her. "Then, on a Friday, the guard said 'You've been riding this bus long enough. You know you're supposed to have identification and if you don't have identification next time you come through here, you'll have to get off the bus.' "
She went home and logged on to the Internet. She read the Constitution. She looked up privacy issues. She came across a story I wrote earlier this year about John Gilmore, a dot-com millionaire who refuses to show identification when government agents request it, making him the wealthiest man currently unable to fly commercial airlines.
She telephoned Mr. Gilmore's all-around spokesman and provocateur, Bill Scannell, and they decided she would challenge the law the following Monday.
She did. Guards from the Federal Protective Services marched onto the bus, took her away and charged her with two counts under the Code of Federal Regulations -- failing to comply with signs and directions and violating the terms of admission to federal property.
"I caught the next bus that came through," she said. "I got to work. I was like three hours late." She had to let her children know, including her son, Dale, who is currently recovering from wounds he received fighting for the U.S. Army in Iraq.
She has a court appearance this Friday in a case she will probably lose. Police are not permitted to randomly demand IDs from strangers on the street, but once they cross onto federal property, they have to play by federal rules.
Whether this is a good thing or not is sometimes hard to tell. The Federal Center instituted the ID rule after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. Its value as a deterrent is doubtful. As another line of demarcation between citizens and their government, though, it seems to be doing just fine.
"I guess I'd had enough," Ms. Davis said. "It's what I call faux security. It doesn't aid our security. They didn't take my name and compare it to a no-ride list. It's just a keep-us-scared kind of thing. They're not doing anything with it."
Of course, if they did do something with the information, it would be an even more unsettling commute for riders of Bus 100.
The question is not the government's right to demand ID for people entering the facility, but the effective purpose.
How much of this is security and how much is theater? And if it's theater, how much of it is conditioning a population to put up with feeling shoved around by a monolith that takes our taxes, regulates our economy, inspects our food and sends our sons to war?
I put the question of the efficacy of this checkpoint to Dave Gaouette, a very personable deputy U.S. attorney whose office must now decide whether to drop this matter or prosecute Ms. Davis.
He really had no answer because his office, as he pointed out, "evaluates the evidence. We compare that to the requirements of a particular statute or ordinance or CFR in this case, and we decide whether we are going to pursue this bringing, it to federal court."
The Federal Protective Services, on the other hand, decide if a statute or ordinance is being violated and, if so moved, arrest someone.
Nowhere in the burgeoning system of state security does there seem to be an office qualified to keep our guardians from becoming our oppressors.
Deborah Davis might lose this one on the small facts. But in the larger principles, her refusal to get off that bus other than in handcuffs speaks a great deal about the direction currently being taken by the big bus we're all riding together.
First Published December 4, 2005 12:00 am