Who Really is Who?
The identity question has bedeviled mankind from the beginning of civilization. And, although we now have fingerprints, DNA, and many other methods of distinguishing individuals, it continues to be a problem today – as evidenced by the fact that, at your bank, pharmacy, or airline ticket-counter, and other places you regularly deal with, you will very likely be asked to identify yourself, starting with your birthdate. Much of this information is now encoded on cards you’re expected to carry, such as your license to operate a motor vehicle. But the validity of the card depends entirely on the authenticity of the person possessing and presenting it. Of course, there are safeguards — but in fact so-called “identity theft” is now one of the most common and widespread crimes.
Why should this be? The answer is one word: money. The transferring of funds, which is more and more a matter of machines communicating with each other, must ultimately be from one individual to another — and necessarily depends on the correct identity of those individuals, particularly the recipient.
You know who you are — so why should anyone else doubt it? You have a name and a face. These were once sufficient for most practical purposes. If it became a legal matter, the testimony of others who knew you would generally be considered convincing evidence. Ah, how simple those times seem now. And yet, mistaken identity has long been a theme both for comedy and for drama. Shakespeare used it as a plot device in his Comedy of Errors, and The Tempest. Much more recently, in Monty Python’s Life of Brian a man named Brian, who happens to be born a few doors down from Jesus, is mistaken for him by the Three Wise Men — and you can imagine all the complications that ensue.
But, if we’re getting Biblical, we might as well go back to one of the very first families — in which there were twin brothers, Jacob and Esau. Jacob connived with their mother, Rebecca, to deceive their elderly blind father, Isaac, into thinking that he, Jacob, is Esau. Jacob therefore gets the inheritance (“birthright”) that was due to Esau. So, it was money, from the beginning.
Right up to modern times, however, there have also been true and very tragic cases of “the wrong man [or woman]” being accused and punished. One would think that, with all the technically advanced methods now available to prove one’s innocence, such incidents could rarely happen. Yet a number of lawyers are still being kept busy on an enterprise called “The Innocence Project,” and, often through their efforts, we still hear of people being released after long periods of imprisonment, their original convictions having been caused by mistaken witnesses or incompetent legal representation.
Then there are the instances of nonentities who happen to closely resemble certain celebrities, or other well-known people, and can take advantage of this — even make a career out of it. In the early 1960s there was a comedian named Vaughn Meader who himself became quite a celebrity by doing a very clever impersonation of President Kennedy — especially after the 1962 release of an LP called The First Family, which won the Grammy Award for “Best Album of the Year.” But his still-rising career crashed to an abrupt end with the Assassination of November 22, 1963. Despite attempted comebacks in other roles, Meader was too associated with Kennedy, and lived the remaining 40 years of his life in relative obscurity.
Earlier, in World War II, there were some deliberate impersonations, as a tactic to deceive the enemy. One of the most notable was by a man named M.E. Clifton James, who bore an uncanny resemblance to one of the Allies’ top military leaders, General Bernard Montgomery. At the time when the Germans’ main concern was when and where the expected invasion of Europe would come, the movements and activities of “Monty” were being watched as closely as possible. In a 1954 book called I Was Monty’s Double, which was subsequently made into a film, James describes how, when he appeared as Monty in North Africa and Gibraltar, he was spied on by German agents. And it’s claimed that this caused some German troops to be diverted from the Normandy area to southern France.
But let none of this divert us from acknowledging that, to most young people today, the chief importance of identification, or “ID,” lies in proving that they are legally old enough to drink.