DURING A football commercial break, my TV turned into a kaleidoscope for a crazily spinning Hummer. During another timeout, a Cadillac spun around a dance floor, bullying several foreign luxury cars off to the side.
No other metaphors are necessary to understand the United States on the eve of the presidential debates.
About 1,050 US soldiers are dead in Iraq. Up to 15,000 Iraqi civilians are dead. None of that has persuaded us Americans to put down the kaleidoscope and stop spinning in our own orbits. No amount of mass sacrifice abroad has resulted in mass sacrifice at home. No amount of failure in the original mission of finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq has made us question the fantasy of bullying the world. Our toys really are us. We're big, we're bad, and you Euro girlie-cars, we're cutting in.
It would be sad to conclude someday that our leaders sent our soldiers halfway around the world to die for our cars. In the absence of weapons of mass destruction and in the absence of Saddam Hussein being tied to Sept. 11, there is not much left to conclude. On its current website, the Economist Intelligence Unit says "the biggest potential prize" and an "ideal prospect" for international oil companies is Iraq, home to the world's second- or third-largest oil reserves. In 1993, the deaths of a mere 18 Army Rangers in resource-starved Somalia made us flee that country.
Today we accept 58 times more American fatalities to secure Iraq. We accept the death of human beings who just finished being boys and girls, yet we have not accepted the notion that to avoid losing more of them, the rest of us must grow up. In 1991, during the first Gulf War to defend Kuwait from Saddam, Americans were consuming 25.2 percent of the world's oil. Today the figure is 26.1 percent, according to statistics kept by British Petroleum.
A huge part of that consumption is our insistence on huge cars, symbolized by Hummers and Caddys. But almost everything about our lifestyles, from our obesity epidemic to our homes, reeks of not giving one whit about being only 4 percent of the planet's population yet creating a quarter of the greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. Even though the size of the American family has shrunk over the last half-century, the size of the average American home has more than doubled, with a single home in the suburbs loaded with more technology than whole villages in the developing world.
If any of this comes up during the debates, it will be a miracle. The last thing voters want to hear from a presidential candidate is that a more secure America means a less selfish America. You certainly will not hear that from President Bush, who says he can drill us into energy independence, even if that takes out a few snow geese and polar bears up in the Arctic. Nor will you probably hear much about sacrifice from his challenger, John Kerry. The Massachusetts senator has a voting record that earned him the endorsement of many environmental groups. But in the heat of pandering to voters, Kerry also said: "You want to drive a great big SUV? Terrific. That's America."
It should be a national shame that more than 1,000 soldiers have died in Iraq, and to this day the only sacrifice President Bush has asked of Americans was so trivial as to be utterly American. "One of the great goals of this nation's war is to restore public confidence in the airline industry," Bush said 16 days after 9/11. "It's to tell the traveling public: Get on board. Do your business around the country. Fly and enjoy America's great destination spots. Get down to Disney World in Florida."
Hummers, Caddys, and Disney World. That's America. A Martian landing in front of an American TV set on a Sunday afternoon would conclude that that is what our modern wars are for.
The presidential debates are about to start. Bush and Kerry will say they can best finish the job in Iraq and make America more secure. Neither has dared to tell Americans that the job begins at home. The debate will matter when one of them asks us to put down the kaleidoscope and end the fantasy of a chicken in every pot and a gas guzzler in every garage.
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.