Americans used to watch in varying degrees of horror as hapless Europeans were importuned by uniformed d00ds, usually German, "Papers, pliss?"
Oh, sure, if you drove, you had to have a driver's license -- a least by the time films featuring papers-demanding jack-booted thugs were hitting the silver screen -- but that bit of pasteboard only certified that your State trusted you behind the wheel. Social Security cards were around, too -- with "NOT TO BE USED FOR IDENTIFICATION" printed right on 'em. 'Cos Americans don't go on for that sort of thing.
It ebbed away. Driver's licenses sprouted photographs and merchants started asking to see them when you wrote a check -- just to make sure, you know, and who could blame them. Banks asked when you opened an account (it is wistfully amusing to recall that W. C. Fields left savings accounts in phony names scattered across the United States and probably Europe; it is eye-opening to realize it is no longer possible) and eventually -- for your own protection! -- they wanted to know your Social Security number, too. They didn't want to see your card, mind you, it still wasn't for identification.
...Of course, you have to put it on you tax forms; after all, Uncle Sam had to keep track! And everyone got used to it. It was normal. Besides, it's not like those demanding to see your "papers" were wearing jackboots, after all.
It's 2010. Your driver's license number, if it isn't the same as your Social Security number, links right back to it in records any police officer can see. Even if you don't drive, if you can't drive, you need either the DL or an ID card that carries the same information. All manner of minor functionaries blandly demand your "Social" and you can't board a commercial airplane without showing ID, having your shoes, effects and possibly yourself X-rayed and even then, it's conditional; if your name happens to be on a secret list, you're not allowed to fly -- and there's no appealing the decision.
And it's "normal." You're used to it and it's not like they're wearing jackboots, ho-ho. Besides, it's not all that much trouble, is it?
After all, it's for your own good.
Americans were a free people. We used to watch, in varying degrees of horror, movie scenes where a hapless European was importuned by police or security guards on the street or in a train station. "Papers, please," they'd demand, and compare the poor boob's name against a list. It could never, we'd think, never happen here.
(P.S.: It doesn't say "Not to be used for identification" on your Social Security card any more. It hasn't for a long, long time).
T. R. MCELROY'S STREAMLINED TELEGRAPH KEYS
7 months ago