Eyes on the prize
By Merrill Goozner

America is at war, and her people are unified. The government, military and intelligence agencies have swung into action. For millions of Americans on the homefront and their political leaders in Washington, the issue immediately becomes: What should we do to protect ourselves and our nation?

Over the next few weeks, America will be consumed by debate about how life in this beacon of freedom may have to change to confront the terrorist threat. Liberals will have to think creatively about how to protect civil liberties in an era when it has become apparent that there are cells of people within the U.S. who are willing to engage in indiscriminate mass murder to further their insane politics.

But we have to do more. We must use this moment of national grief and unified purpose to advance a positive agenda that speaks to all Americans.

Here are a few suggestions that ought to become part of the discussion:

First, the nation must immediately embark on a crash program to wean itself from dependence on foreign oil. That means weaning America from oil itself. The most fitting memorial to the dead of September 11, 2001 is ending the era of oil. Oil, as Daniel Yergin wrote in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Prize, fueled both economic growth and the great geopolitical conflicts of the 20th century.

But in the 21st century, it has become an albatross around the advanced industrial world’s neck. It is the primary source, not only of air pollution and global warming, but of geopolitical instability. The nations that through a fluke of geography are the source of much of the world’s oil have largely squandered the patrimony that flowed into their wallets, and their spiritually and economically impoverished peoples have become the seedbeds of the fanaticism that has needlessly taken so many lives.

The technologies already exist to accomplish the goal of eliminating half of our oil usage over the next decade. The automobile industry must be given generous tax incentives and subsidies to ensure that every new car that roles off assembly lines within five years uses clean technologies like fuel cells that are either oil-free or are hybrids. Car fleet fuel efficiency standards should be doubled with generous financial awards for date-certain completion. And then they should be doubled again.

The governmental also should jump-start massive new investments in non-polluting and non-oil-using technologies for producing electricity. Solar, wind, geothermal and biomass — these are the energy sources of the 21st century, not oil and natural gas from politically unstable regions.

The debate over changing our travel habits in the U.S. in response to the horrific hijackings cannot be limited to adapting new security precautions at the nation’s overburdened airports. There were undoubtedly many ways the terrorists could have eluded the slapdash airport security precautions we now have in place. The underpaid rent-a-guards at X-ray checkpoints pose almost no deterrence to the determined mass murderer.

Yet, as long as the current economics of the airline industry are in place (thin operating margins in good times, massive losses in bad times), improving the quality of airport security could prove very difficult to finance.

But there’s a way around this dilemma. The nation should resolve to end gridlock at its airports by eliminating all flights under 300 miles. How? By building a high-speed rail system that will get people to nearby business and pleasure destinations just as fast, if not faster, and at less cost and more comfort than current air travel.

In 10 years, a crash program could have a modern, high-speed rail system in place that would largely eliminate the Washington-New York and New York-Boston shuttles; link the cities within Florida and Texas; hub-and-spoke the checkerboard-patterned cities of the Upper Midwest; and run up and down the West Coast. Moreover, it would create tens of thousands of new jobs in every section of the country.

Then, the airlines could adopt continental schedules that filled their planes. Do competing airlines really need to send planes from Boston to Los Angeles every hour that are only one-third filled?

Businesses can adapt by altering their business schedules, and airlines can drop their ruinous competition for the limited trans-continental market. High-speed rail and full planes will mean less frequent aircraft departures and less crowded airports. That will give the airlines and airport authorities time to carry out the sophisticated and appropriate security measures that must be adapted in the wake of September 11. Those flights may cost more, but it’s a small price to pay.

These are just some of the homefront programs that the American people can unite behind to combat terrorism within our borders. They’re practical. They ’re high-tech. And they will give the economy a boost.

Most important, they will unite the homefront in the war against terrorism in a way that doesn’t sacrifice our basic freedoms.


Merrill Goozner, a contributing editor to The American Prospect, is a 2001-2002 Kaiser Media Fellow and a professor of journalism at New York University. This essay originally appeared in the September 17, 2001 edition of The American Prospect.