Ask Not What Your S.U.V. Costs

Wise though he was, Abraham Lincoln had no way of knowing in the summer of 1864 that the war he was pressing would end in triumph by the following spring. At that moment, Grant and Sherman were stalled in their respective theaters of Virginia and Georgia, and Lee was unconquered. So it was with some consternation that Lincoln observed the goings-on on Wall Street, where (historians Michael Wallace and Edwin G. Burrows remind us in their book, Gotham ) some speculators were given to singing “Dixie” on the exchange floor to celebrate Confederate victories and the consequent rise in the price of gold.

The embattled President turned to Governor Andrew C. Curtis of Pennsylvania and asked, “What do you think of those fellows in Wall Street, who are gambling in gold at such a time as this?” Curtis offered the view that the speculators were “a set of sharks.”

“For my part, I wish every one of them had his devilish head shot off,” Lincoln replied.

This prescription clearly is too strong for the corporate titans who are using the war on terrorism as cover for the personal-enrichment schemes written into what President Bush has taken to calling his “economic security bill.” Nor would it be altogether fitting and proper to demand such punishment for those who continue to measure their self-worth by the weight of their sport utility vehicles, that mechanized fifth column. Chances are, though, the corporate titans and gas guzzlers would willingly submit to Lincoln’s solution rather than face a devilish tax increase to pay for those bombs and missiles we’ve been firing to such good effect.

Lincoln was neither the first nor the last wartime leader to observe fellow citizens putting self ahead of nation at a time of peril. Americans of a certain age tell of the means by which people they knew–never themselves, of course–managed to get around government rationing during World War II. The ration they most hated was, of course, the gasoline ration, and great forces of quasi-criminal intellect were brought to bear on the problem of gassing up the Ford at a time when fuel was desperately needed on the battlefield.

Thus far in the war on terror, we have not been asked to give up so much as a Sunday-afternoon trip to the mall. In fact, quite the opposite: We’ve been encouraged to spend as much and as quickly as possible in order to shore up the stumbling economy and thus foil the nation’s enemies.

Personal consumption has long been a national sacrament. Now we are being led to believe that it is, in its own way, an assertion of national sovereignty, an act of righteous retribution, our own personal shake of the fist at those who wish us death and destruction. Maybe the government, in lieu of making any tough budgetary decisions, should invite American Express, Visa, MasterCard et al. to bid for the right to be the official card of the war on terrorism. It would send the right message, and restore some of the money the House Republicans want to give away in the form of a 30-percent bonus depreciation over the next three years.

We’ve known all along that the war on terrorism would not be bloodless. But we’re dangerously close to believing that it may be painless, except for those unfortunate enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when the terrorists strike. The President and his aides prepared us well for flag-draped coffins, and they remind us that the military danger is far from over. But they have not told us what we might do, other than to buy something–anything–for our country. And not many of us have asked.

The spirit is willing. There’s little question that many Americans have a sense of larger purpose since Sept. 11, an understanding that self-indulgence and some of the more frivolous notions of personal fulfillment are part of the world that ended on Sept. 10. If the President were to use this moment not to hand out free money to big business, but to remind us that we will never be secure while we are dependent on the sheiks of the Persian Gulf, my guess is that we we’d respond heroically. Mr. Bush needn’t have offered us only the prospect of blood, sweat, toil and tears. But he could have asked us to think about fuel efficiency before buying some $40,000 S.U.V.

We have to be inspired before we’ll ask what we can do for our country. Mr. Bush isn’t one for ringing phrases, and perhaps he doesn’t think that any sacrifice–other than the shedding of a few soldiers’ blood–is required to defeat the Evil One and his fellow evildoers.

The next few years are not going to be pleasant. It will be all the worse if somehow we are taken by surprise, again.

Ask Not What Your S.U.V. Costs