The WTC Attack, Sep 11 2001

Commentary and Analysis

Neela Banerjee: gas-guzzling patriotism

'Made in America,' and Never Mind the Gas Mileage
November 23, 2001
New York Times

Andrew Serkanic has been a patriot since he was 7 - "from the first time I saw the flag," he said.

Not that the other parents picking up their grade-schoolers at the Pines Lake School in Wayne, N.J., could doubt it. Mr. Serkanic's choices in apparel sometimes include T-shirts with Osama bin Laden's face surrounded by the words "Wanted Dead or Alive." Mr. Serkanic's business is God Bless America Meats, and he says that Kate Smith sings on the company's answering machine. And then there is his car, part ornate chariot and all political megaphone: a white Ford Explorer with gold trim, its tailgate and tinted windows emblazoned with the flag and "God Bless America."

"It gets 12.8 miles per gallon that I love to pay for," Mr. Serkanic said, beaming. "It's made in America, or at least half of it anyway."

For Mr. Serkanic and many others like him in this part of North Jersey, there is no contradiction between patriotism and driving a gas guzzler. Some talk-show commentators and op-ed page writers may be connecting the dots between oil and terrorism, but few people in this area seem to have heard the idea - and fewer still believe - that individual Americans, by buying more fuel-efficient vehicles, can make the United States less dependent on Middle Eastern countries and others that so many of them now rage against.

And they give little credence to the notion that the United States has earned the enmity of many Arabs and Muslims because it refrains from criticizing the corruption and human rights violations in oil-producing countries.

"In my simple mind, this has nothing to do with oil," Mr. Serkanic said.

Indeed, there is less these days to remind Americans about the relationship between their gasoline use and global politics than at times in the past when war or the threat of war roiled the Middle East.

The retail price of gasoline in the United States has been falling, after a steeper drop in the commodity price of crude oil. And with the Big Three automakers offering zero-percent financing on many purchases, car dealers around Wayne, like their counterparts nationwide, have been selling record numbers of sport utility vehicles and other light trucks. The country's best-selling vehicles last month - Ford's F-Series trucks, the Chevrolet Silverado and the Ford Explorer - on average get about 16 miles to the gallon, according to government figures.

"Gas mileage concerns haven't been slowing sales down," said Robert Singh, sales manager at Fette Ford, on Route 46 in Clifton. "We've been selling S.U.V.'s like crazy."

At the Costco parking lot down the road, Cindy Goldstein acknowledged, laughing a bit abashedly, that her six-year-old Land Rover devours gasoline, and then she pondered where that fuel came from. "I don't know how we get it from the Middle East," she said recently, the American flag on her sport utility vehicle fluttering in the breeze like others in the lot. "I think there's some oil in Texas."

Once she heard the concept of how American dependence on oil may in a variety of ways help nurture terrorism, her laughter died off. "I never thought of it that way," Mrs. Goldstein said - "that we should be conserving more."

Sue Smith had already heard the theories, and she dismissed them entirely. "I don't think it's unpatriotic to use so much gas," Ms. Smith said, loading her silver Chevy Tahoe with groceries. "It's very patriotic. It's our way of life."

And what of the consideration that the American way of life means that a country with less than 5 percent of the world's population uses 25 percent of the world's crude oil? "Why should we cut back?" Ms. Smith, 40, asked. "We're an affluent society. Should I hate my neighbor because she has a better house, a better car, more money?"

Though a smaller percentage of United States oil imports come from the Persian Gulf region than 30 years ago, the nation imports more of its oil than it ever has, leaving it vulnerable to sharp swings in prices.

For Ms. Smith and many others here, the answer to that vulnerability is not reducing demand or developing alternative fuels, but drilling at home. (Few people realize that the United States has only 3 percent of the world's proven oil reserves.) "We should go on living the way we're living," Ms. Smith said. "And we should think about the wacko environmental groups that are forcing us to get oil someplace else."

In the gathering twilight, at the park-and-ride lot on Route 46, Robert Boesch, 64, a textile designer, walks to his Chevrolet Blazer after returning on the bus from work in New York. Mr. Boesch is aware of how dependent the United States is on foreign oil, but he has no plans to change his driving habits or to stop leasing sport utility vehicles, as he has for eight years.

"We don't have an alternative right now," Mr. Boesch maintained, "and I don't see our government jumping to the fore on this issue."

That may change. Senate Democrats are drafting an energy bill that would call for increasing the fuel economy of sport utility vehicles and other light trucks; the Ford Motor Company has pledged a 25 percent improvement in the fuel efficiency of its sport utility vehicles by 2005, and both General Motors and Chrysler have promised to match Ford.

S.U.V. owners, especially women, say they picked their vehicles because they make them feel safer. But when pushed a bit, most say that they simply love being in huge vehicles that make them feel powerful on the road.

Sheila King, 27, a teacher from Clifton, came one evening to look at what she called "a big monster" sport utility at the McGuire Auto Group on Route 46 in neighboring Little Falls. "It's as much about road rage as anything else," Ms. King said. "You don't want others to do more damage to you than you can do to them."

Ryan McGuire, the dealership's general manager, was not enthusiastic about having a reporter discuss gasoline mileage with his customers. "Because that will get them thinking about it," he said, "and we don't want that."

But relatively few people in this area seem to be thinking about gas mileage, and the circumstances that would prompt Americans to opt for more fuel-efficient vehicles have not yet shaken the country.

"What would get people to stop driving S.U.V.'s?" Ms. Smith said earlier in the day. "If God came down from heaven and said, `You can't drive S.U.V.'s anymore.' "

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