Friday, December 2, 2016

Fraud and False Identity in Afghanistan, and Colonial North America

Amusing story in the Times about a man who posed as an Afghan government official so successfully that he got himself flown around the country in a government helicopter, protected by elite troops. Afghanistan, a place where most of whatever records there were have been blown up or burned in 30 years of war, has a huge problem with fraud and false identity. Sometimes this is tragic, as when men who claim to be Taliban peace emissaries turn out to be suicide bombers. Other times it is farce:
One shopkeeper made it as far as the presidential palace posing as the Taliban’s deputy leader and was rewarded with cash for a willingness to talk peace.
This reminds me of many stories I have read about colonial America. A whole string of Europeans showed up in the New World claiming to be everything from princes to doctors of philosophy, and how was anyone to check? If they could act the part, these men might find a willing reception in many corners of the colonies. A Swiss land speculator who called himself the Baron von Graffenried left a trail through the middle colonies, eventually earning a place in history as co-founder of New Bern, North Carolina. Some of the first German churches in America, from South Carolina to New Jersey, were taken in by a preacher who called himself Carl Rudolf and claimed to be the rightful Prince of Wuerttemberg, getting entertained by each German community along the road before stealing cash or jewelry and disappearing into the night, one step ahead of news about his crimes.

In a slow-moving traditional world identities are established by tight-knit communities where everybody knows everybody else's business. In the 20th century identities came to be established by governments, with records and passports and ID cards. But where there are neither stable communities nor rigorous bureaucracies, chaos and fraud often reign.

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