Monday, February 28, 2005
SAN FRANCISCO -- John Gilmore's splendid isolation began July 4, 2002, when, with defiance aforethought, he strolled to the Southwest Airlines counter at Oakland Airport and presented his ticket.
The gate agent asked for his ID.
Gilmore asked her why.
It is the law, she said.
Gilmore asked to see the law.
Nobody could produce a copy. To date, nobody has. The regulation that mandates ID at airports is "Sensitive Security Information." The law, as it turns out, is unavailable for inspection.
What started out as a weekend trip to Washington became a crawl through the courts in search of an answer to Gilmore's question: Why?
In post 9/11 America, asking "Why?" when someone from an airline asks for identification can start some interesting arguments. Gilmore, who learned to argue on the debate team in his hometown of Bradford, McKean County, has started an argument that, should it reach its intended target, the U.S. Supreme Court, would turn the rules of national security on end, reach deep into the tug-of-war between private rights and public safety, and play havoc with the Department of Homeland Security.
At the heart of Gilmore's stubbornness is the worry about the thin line between safety and tyranny.
"Are they just basically saying we just can't travel without identity papers? If that's true, then I'd rather see us go through a real debate that says we want to introduce required identity papers in our society rather than trying to legislate it through the back door through regulations that say there's not any other way to get around," Gilmore said. "Basically what they want is a show of obedience."
As happens to the disobedient, Gilmore is grounded. He is rich -- he estimates his net worth at $30 million -- and cannot fly inside the United States. Nor can he ride Amtrak, rent a room at most major hotels, or easily clear security in the courthouses where his case, Gilmore v. Ashcroft, is to be heard. In a time when more and more people and places demand some form of government-issued identification, John Gilmore offers only his 49-year-old face: a study in stringy hair, high forehead, wire-rimmed glasses, Ho Chi Minh beard and the contrariness for which the dot.com culture is renowned.