(This article originally appeared in The America Prospect Online. It has been widely reprinted and delivered as a Marketplace Commentary on National Public Radio.)
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, who are desperate for a way to contribute to the war effort. Issues of economic security and policy have not gone away –they have only been upstaged for now by the terrorist threat. Here are a few questions that should not be overlooked:
First, the nation must immediately embark on a crash program to wean itself from dependence on foreign oil. That means substantially weaning itself from oil itself.The most fitting memorial to the dead of September 11, 2001 will come if, decades from now, the assault is recalled as the event that triggered the end of 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 of not only air pollution and global warming, but of geopolitical instability. The nations that, through the fluke of geography, are the source of much of the world’s oil, have largely squandered the patrimony that flowed into their wallets. 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 rolls 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 government should also jump start massive new investments in non-polluting and non-oil using technologies for producing electricity. Solar, wind, geo-thermal 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 our slapdash airport security precautions. Long lines of harried travelers brushing past the underpaid rent-a-guards at x-ray checkpoints pose almost no deterrence to the determined mass murderer.
Yet the outlook for the nation’s airports in the coming decades promises even bigger crowds and longer lines. Moreover, as long as the current economics of the airline industry are in place — with their thin operating margins in good times and 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 now to end gridlock at its airports by eliminating all flights of up to 300 miles. How? By building a high-speed rail system in this country that will get people to their business and pleasure destinations just as fast, if not faster, and at less cost and with more comfort than current air travel.
A crash program now could have a modern, high-speed rail system in place in ten years 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; run up and down the West Coast. It’s a crash program that would create tens of thousands of new jobs in every section of the country.
Then, the airlines could adopt continental schedules that fill up 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 this week’s terrorist assault. Those flights may cost more, but it’s a small price to pay.
These are just some of the home front programs that the American people can unite behind now to combat terrorism within our borders. They’re practical. They’re high-tech. And they will give the economy a boost.
And most important, they will unite the home front in the war against terrorism in a way that doesn’t sacrifice our basic freedoms.