VIEWS ON THE NEWS
By Sean Prophet
1970'S SANTA BARBARA OIL SPILL KEEPS ON GIVING
I spent an exhilarating October afternoon walking Goleta beach two weeks ago. It was the first time I'd been back to this spot in 25 years. When I was 9 and 10 years old in Santa Barbara in the 1973 and 1974, getting gobs of tar on your feet at the beach was just part of the experience. Part of the price we all paid for our parents' freedom to drive their soon-to-be-downsized-gas-guzzling-yank-tanks posing as automobiles. There was always a can of gasoline at the back door of our house. As we got back from the beach, we'd scrub our feet with it to get the tar off. I never dreamed that 25 years later, the stuff would still be on the beaches. To be sure, today's tar blobs are few and far between. But as I sat down on a rock, I noticed a barely visible black coating underneath a layer of sand. Tar? I thought? Nahhh... So I broke off a piece and sniffed it. Smelled like a truck stop. So even 25 years isn't enough time for nature to clean up the damage? For the first time, I understood directly the severity of events like the Exxon Valdez disaster and the Kuwait oil fires. Spilled oil is forever. Or--at least a good portion of a human lifetime.
OIL DEPENDENCE HAS UNLEASHED TERRORISM
Those of us who were alive in 1973 remember America's first gas lines. We were incredulous that some foreign power could somehow limit our unfettered wasteful habits. A newfound environmental awareness dovetailed with strategic practicality: Cut down on consumption, reduce dependence on foreign oil and clean up the environment. The CAFE standards were born. American car manufacturers were supposed to average 27.5 MPG by 1987. Oh, I forgot something. I said CAR manufacturers. They dutifully met the CAFE standards--just in time for the American public to discover something new and even worse: the SUV. See, the government never thought that people would actually want to drive their families around in commercial TRUCKS, so these were exempted from the regs. (To illustrate the opposite extreme, imagine the plumber or roofing contractor driving a compact car to their job site.)
In their infinite wisdom, our leaders have seen fit to allow a loophole in government standards big enough to drive a FORD EXCURSION through. Trucks were exempt! So, add some seats, a lot of carpet and padding, and a commercial truck becomes...voila! the family car for the new millenium. At 8-10 mpg, the Excursions put even the big caddys my dad drove to shame. What? regulate the most popular and profitable trucks in American history? No way, we're going to war in the Middle East and opening up new pristine Arctic lands to oil production!
But wait, STOP! You think gas guzzlers and September 11 have nothing in common? Think again. His royal horridness Osama Bin Laden expressly stated that the reason he hates America is the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia. Why are they there? To protect our right to drive SUV's, of course.
It's as American as apple pie to want to drive our large cars on our large best-in-the-world roads. And why shouldn't we? I've dreamed of cruising this great country of ours in a class-A motorhome someday. I used to own a king-size 30 ft. trailer that put a strain on the biggest tow vehicles. I know about the pleasures of the open road and the enjoyment of America's great parks and campsites. It's a valuable part of our way of life. And we can have it without guilt. But not just yet....
Not while gas is $1.39 a gallon. Last year's $2.00 gasoline was just about the best thing that could have happened to America. People hate the idea, but high prices discourage consumption and encourage research into alternatives. And alternatives there are. Fuel cells and hydrogen are the key to guilt-free rolling living rooms for our retirement and the next generation. Algae ponds in the desert can make enough hydrogen to meet all these needs and desires and then some. But not with the Bush/Cheney administration in the White House. This team has always preached the gospel of big oil, and now we're paying the price. Actor Robert Redford has recently penned a compelling missive on the subject.
The hydrogen economy offers vast promise and a limitless supply of what is essentially stored solar energy.
But it won't happen unless we are willing to postpone our gratification and our love affair with palaces on wheels for a few more years. We've just seen the costs of our oil dependence escalate beyond our worst nightmares. Would we pay $3.00 a gallon to have the twin towers and thousands of dead Americans back with us? I would in a heartbeat. When you look at the total cost of driving, including taxes, insurance, capital cost of the vehicle, etc, the price of gas is only about 20% of the cost of driving. So even if the price of gas were to double, the cost of driving for the average family would only go up 10-20%. America's oil dependence prevents us from taking a stand against the radicals in Saudi Arabia, and corrupt governments elsewhere in the region. Even as our soldiers fight the terror war, our oil money goes to Islamic religious schools training the next generation of screaming American-haters.
Forget the lame too-little-too-late tactic of freezing terrorist assets. Freeze their whole way of life by weaning ourselves from the oil! If we continue with our profligate insane love affair with cheap Middle Eastern oil, we may sacrifice more buildings, more people, and even an entire city to nuclear or bio-terror before it's over. The very least that will happen is environmental devastation as CO2 increases and warms our planet beyond recognition. We've got to call a halt to this NOW. This is perhaps the most important public policy issue we face today, and we've just been given a new incentive to act. We should endorse the Kyoto protocols on global warming and start to take this seriously. The libertarian in me hates this idea, but if market forces won't mandate a change, how about a gradually phased in $1.00 a gallon alternative energy tax to go directly to construction of a self-sufficient American hydrogen economy? The price will jump anyway in a few years as supplies tighten. So let's get ahead of the curve, and help set the Islamic world straight at the same time. This is serious, folks. It's a matter of life and death, national security, and worldwide importance.
MISSING RUSSIAN NUKES ARE BOUND TO SURFACE
As far back as 1994, the late "Dr. Strangeglove" director Stanley Kubrick offered a warning on missing Russian nukes. Ironically, the New York Times considered his letter alarmist and refused to print it. You'd think a visionary like Kubrick would be heeded, just as you would have thought Tom Clancy's scenario of a 747 being flown into the capital building would have been taken more seriously before it nearly happened. A 1-kiloton suitcase nuke detonated in New York, Chicago, Washington, or L.A. would make September 11 look like a 4th of July picnic.
The good news is, if terrorists have these weapons, it would have stood to reason they would have used them September 11. The bad news is that the longer and harder the U.S. bombs Islamic nations, the more likely they are to use them if and when they get them. Unlike in the Cold War, nuclear deterrence is not a factor with Islamics. And tracking down who planted a nuke would be impossible after the explosion. We can assume there would be widespread panic and a total vacuum of information as officials scrambled to pick up the pieces. Assuming there was a functioning government, the only option for retaliation would be the blind nuclear bombing of every suspect Islamic country, an immoral and inhuman waste of innocent life, and a tragic denouement for a once great superpower. The world would utterly turn against America after such an act. And in the end, we still might never know the source of the bombing. Unlike September 11, a nuclear explosion eliminates any evidence at the "crime scene." This scenario is both horrendous and plausible. Leaders can talk endlessly and take their sweet time. But there's a terrorist nuke in the making with the name of a U.S. city waiting to be written on it. Which one will it be? We cannot count the cost of inaction. However expensive and difficult, the U.S. government and the CIA have no more vital task IN THE WORLD than to track down any missing weapons, and destroy completely the nuclear programs of terrorist organizations and nations.
TERROR ATTACKS LEND NEW URGENCY TO DRUG LAW REFORM
A January 2001 ABCNEWS Nightline report on the CIA's forecast for the year 2015 came true--14 years early. Talk of terrorism, weapons of mass destruction and Osama Bin Laden's Afghanistan was chillingly accurate. One aspect of this problem is seldom discussed: the biggest source of funds for terrorists and corrupt governments is the drug trade. For example, Afghanistan is (or was) the world's leading opium producer. A key weapon against the terrorists then will be cutting off this flow of drug money. We've already seen that trying to cut off demand doesn't work. And drug prohibition keeps street prices sky-high. The extraordinary amount of money coming from this trade employs huge numbers of violent criminals, and ultimately delivers a king's ransom to trafficking organizations who are in bed with the terrorists. So it's time to legalize and privatize the drug business, so that drug money ends up with the pharmaceutical companies or the government. This is beyond a moral or civil liberties issue now. Changing our attitudes about the drug trade has become a matter of survival.
BRAIN FINGERPRINTING COULD DRAMATICALLY REDUCE TERRORIST RISK
A simple technique of monitoring a subject's brain waves while they view a series of computer displayed images holds promise to identify individuals intent on committing harm. I must admit, the free-thinker and civil libertarian in me recoils at the very idea of a real life Voigt-Kampff test (as in Blade Runner). Blade Runner's replicants were often more human than the humans in the film, and we were shown the absurdity of trying to determine an individual's humanness from any scientific test.
But the issues are different with terrorism. We know these terrorists are all too human and driven by the mental illness of religious fanaticism. Brain fingerprinting offers an intriguing way to penetrate these warped minds. So accurate, that test results have been deemed admissible in court, it has been used not only to convict, but also to exonerate. I would compare this test to a 2001 version of the polygraph.
If this test is to be used to identify terrorists before they strike, lawmakers must be sure it complies with the constitution: namely, no U.S. citizen should be forced to take this test without probable cause--the same standard used for wiretapping or searches of one's home or car. In this age of terrorism, though, we should establish categories of people who need to take this test: non-residents who wish to cross our borders, go to our schools, and members of suspected terrorist organizations. The standard should be: no citizen is forced to take this test without cause, but if you want to hold certain jobs, or enter areas that are a security risk, then be willing to take the test.
The stakes are so high right now, with the possibility of weapons of mass destruction used on the American population, that risks of abuse of such a test are outweighed by its usefulness in exposing terrorist "sleeper cells" and preventing such attacks.