The automobile showrooms around town are still showing off shiny sport-utility vehicles, which means that a lot of us haven’t changed much, if at all, since the World Trade Center attack. We can announce an end to irony; we can declare that our new celebrities are not dopey film stars, but working-class firefighters; we can sneer at the shallowness of those time has left behind. But if we’re still buying these gas-guzzling threats to national security, we haven’t changed at all.
We’re dropping bombs in Central Asia, but of course the wider conflict is about the Middle East, which means that we’re back to our decades-long dependence on oil produced and sold by some of the globe’s greatest scoundrels. Since Sept. 11, we’ve learned a great deal about our cynical and disturbing relationship with the appalling House of Saud, which can be summed up in a phrase: They sell us oil relatively cheaply, and we protect them. We can’t or won’t do much about their subsidies to America-hating schools and mullahs, because they’ve got us by our gas tanks. Nice, eh?
For a while back in the maligned Carter years, we came to regard oil imports as a matter of grave national consequence. Just as we were determined to match the Soviets’ first-strike capacity so we could never be blackmailed, we likewise sought to reduce our dependence on the oil sheiks of the Persian Gulf. Jimmy Carter gave a speech wearing a sweater to emphasize conservation, and it all seemed so gosh-darn earnest. People went out and bought small cars, which increasingly were of foreign extraction, since the great minds of Detroit couldn’t deal with the notion of making little cars that didn’t burn lots of gas.Thegovernment started buying oil for a strategic reserve. We were gonna show ’em!
Then we threw out Mr. Carter, partly because of a foreign-policy crisis involving an oil exporter-Iran-and partly because we were told that it is better and even more patriotic to consume rather than conserve. Car commercialsthat onceadvertised miles per gallon suddenly were touting “performance” again, which meant a return to bigger engines and heavier cars. Gas prices were stable, and everybody was content. Oh, there were little incidents here and there, around and concerning oil land-the Marines were bombed in Beirut; a C.I.A. station chief in Lebanon was abducted, tortured and slain; we bombed Libya for its involvement in a bombing in Germany; we mistakenly shot down a plane filled with Muslim pilgrims; and terrorists wreaked revenge by blowing up one of our planes over Scotland. But we had our cars back. Eight-cylinder engines that were headed for the scrap heap in 1978 returned with a roar.
All the while, our dependency on Middle East oil grew. We went to war to protect our oil in 1990-91. We won big time, and decided to celebrate by turning up our noses at mere sedans and buying Detroit’s latest scam, the sport-utility vehicle. Congress encouraged this by exempting S.U.V.’s from emission standards that apply to ordinary cars, and the big-think think-tankers produced flag-waving essays defending these monstrosities because they helped Detroit make money hand over fist. The market was all that mattered: If Americans were willing to spend $50,000 or more on a truck that went through a gallon of gas every 17 miles, well, Al Gore and his tree-hugging friends could kiss their tailpipes.
The short oil-price shock of the mid-1990’s did nothing to slow this idiotic exercise in conspicuous consumption. The S.U.V. owners screamed when gas started heading toward $2 a gallon, so the politicians went to the sheiks with hat in hand to ensure that American drivers continued their inalienable right to burn obscene amounts of gas.
Nobody puts the words “oil” and “national security” together anymore. After all, Jimmy Carter tried that, and what do we remember about Jimmy Carter? He was the guy who gave a speech in a cardigan sweater. What a loser! Americans don’t conserve. Americans consume, and they consume big time.
At a press conference before the bombing starting, President Bush was asked if he thought Americans should sacrifice to help the war effort. He handled the question with some eloquence, talking about the prayers that Americans have offered since Sept. 11, but he said nothing about our dangerous dependency on oil. Of course, Mr. Bush and other administration officials are no strangers to the oil business, so perhaps he simply couldn’t bring himself to suggest that we think about the victory we hand the sheiks every time we buy a Lincoln Navigator or a Ford Expedition.
There has been talk about the need to empanel a new Manhattan Project to outthink and destroy terrorism. Getting the country’s best scientists together to replace the internal-combustion engine would be just as important.