Last month, Donald Rumsfeld got into a flap when it was revealed that his condolence letters to troops’ families were signed by a machine.
Some critics, like retired Army colonel David Hackworth, compared using a machine to “having it signed by a monkey.” But in the digital age, signing your name on paper is a pretty quaint custom. Was Rumsfeld’s decision really inappropriate?
Legally, your signature shows you’ve deliberated about something and given your informed consent. So if you asked Donald Trump to “autograph” your mortgage, you couldn’t claim he’d agreed to pay it.
But if it’s really the act of consent that’s significant, then how you express it shouldn’t matter, right? When I sign a credit-card receipt, most retail clerks don’t even glance at my signature.
Congress even ratified this view when it passed a new law in 2000, legally recognizing an “electronic sound, symbol, or process” as a signature. That means you can now “sign” an Internet transaction with an e-mail message or even a Touch-Tone beep.
So is Rumsfeld still wrong? Unfortunately, yes. In this case his signature is neither an autograph nor an endorsement, but a sign of his personal attention.
As Hackworth told Stars and Stripes, “Using those machines is pretty common, but it shouldn’t be in cases of those who have died in action. How can [officials] feel the emotional impact of that loss if they’re not even looking at the letters?”
That may be one thing a technocrat can’t understand.