By Barry L. Gan
Gandhi first became famous in South Africa, in 1906, for protesting what Indians called the “Black Act.” The “Black Act,” formally known as the Asiatic Registration Act, required all Asian men, including Indians, to register via fingerprints with the South African government and receive a registration paper – essentially a green card – that they had to carry with them always.
The Indians found this requirement outrageous. England had gladly accepted Indians’ enlistment during the Second Boer War without requiring them to be fingerprinted and carry identification. But following the war, the government felt a need to fingerprint them.
At the time, nations around the world did not require identification papers. Passports and other identification papers only came into regular use during and after World War I, and many objected to their increasing use.
It was over this issue that Gandhi mounted his first civil disobedience campaign, protesting the requirement that Indians be required to carry the equivalent of green cards. Gandhi initially went to jail for two months for leading Indians in a refusal to register. Finally, after seven years, Gandhi’s appeal to love and reason, through resistance, prevailed, and the “Black Act” was repealed.
On another front three decades later, in the late 1930s, as Germany increased its attacks against its Jewish “outsiders,” one city in the world – Shanghai – offered easy refuge. Shanghai had no visa or passport requirements, and so Jews, approximately 30,000 of them, flocked to Shanghai. Their lives were preserved, without harm to the lives of Shanghai’s citizens.
Nowadays, though, we shrug off the idea that an identity card is an abomination, an insult to the integrity and sovereignty of individuals. We increasingly believe that visas, passports and identification cards contribute to national security, and we place our own freedom and security on a pedestal higher than that of others. We need to ask ourselves: Which is more important, freedom or security?
Some would argue that one can’t have freedom without security, but it’s clear that the security of some comes at the cost of the freedom of others, as visas, green cards and immigration restrictions become the rule. And it now appears, as we allow ourselves to be frisked and X-rayed at airports, in courts, in schools and elsewhere, that security comes at the cost of our own freedoms, too.
However, the more we allow our freedoms to be taken from us, the less security we actually have. It is in safeguarding freedoms that we assure ourselves of security. Security measures themselves diminish our freedoms, especially if they are executed arbitrarily.
Were Adolf Hitler and Osama bin Laden alive, they’d be rejoicing at the steady erosion of freedoms in the name of security. If Gandhi had a grave, he’d be rolling over in it.
Barry L. Gan is professor of philosophy and director of the Center for Nonviolence at St. Bonaventure University.