Our national discourse is still dominated, now as then, by a loathsome mixture of ideological reflex and cynicism. The carnage and prospect of civil war in Iraq may feel like good news to some on the left, but even more profoundly corrosive is the administration’s unspoken political dependence on our fears of terrorist carnage in America. Under Bush, the Republicans are now deeply invested in fear itself, which has been the party’s successful default posture—concerning communists, then blacks, then hippies and radicals, now gays and, of course, Muslim terrorists—since World War II. If the national threat level is raised to orange this fall, I will be highly skeptical, finally inclined to agree with people who consider the system nothing but a crude political tool.
Four years ago, the U.S. had no meaningful strategy to reduce our dependence on foreign energy. And—unfathomably, tragically—we still don’t. We still import between a fifth and a quarter of our oil from the Persian Gulf; the higher that figure, the greater our need for influence and control in the region; and the greater our need for influence and control, the greater our likelihood of being attacked by Islamic terrorists and feeling obliged to invade countries like Iraq and Iran. After 9/11, Bush had the political capital to enact a visionary new energy policy devoted to weaning us off Arab Extra Light crude and Basra Blend; he might have raised the federal gasoline tax dramatically, required much higher minimum gas mileage for all cars, and funded hydrogen-energy development at Manhattan Project (or Iraqi war, or Katrina recovery) levels. Instead he (and Congress) did almost nothing.
September 11 did not change everything, as we’d expected and feared and hoped. Too many people, the president most prominently, apparently decided real change would be too unpleasant and inconvenient, that demanding one-for-all sacrifice of anyone but soldiers and Marines was out of the question. Because if people really changed—if we had radically revised our national energy policy, or built low-rise buildings at ground zero instead of the Freedom Tower—then the terrorists would win. If the attacks four years ago were a wake-up call, as the other 9/11 cliché has it, it seems we’re still in that dazed, dithery, half-asleep, half-awake state. Just maybe, Katrina is another wake-up call, the one that finally gets us up and out of bed and down to business.