Hummers, Terrorism, and Societal Sin

I wrote the following short essay for a class on National Security Affairs in a slightly modified form. It is a response to a very specific prompt regarding a possible connection between American Hummer owners and Saudi supported terrorism.

Some American champions for environmental and energy security posit a chain of logic that begins with Hummers and ends with terrorism. The basic argument goes as follows: Hummers, and other large fuel inefficient vehicles, require abnormally high amounts of gasoline to function. The refueling rate disproportionally increases US demand for petroleum, which reinforces US need for foreign oil. Inevitably, this sustained demand for petroleum imports secures continued American dealings with the Saudi oil market, which in turn increases Saudi wealth that is, at long last, used to finance terrorism.

Although vastly over simplified, there are a few claims in their argument that sound valid – if not compelling – and warrants further consideration.  To investigate the charged connection of Hummer owners to terrorism it must first be established whether the Saudi government, as the beneficiary of Saudi oil profits, financially supports terrorist acts or organizations.  Only then can we delve further into the potential guilt of an average gas guzzling American driver in aiding and abetting the very plague they so vociferously seek to vanquish.

While it is commonly held that Saudi funding of Wahhabist terrorism is a problematic roadblock to our counter-terrorist operations, it is difficult to prove that there is a direct relationship between the Saudi government (i.e. the Saudi oil market) and the subsequent funding of terrorist organizations by Saudi nationals.  As a rentier state, the wealth of the nation is managed through government control of their petroleum resources and the profits are then distributed among the citizenry.  The recipients with the largest share of these funds are the numerous members of the Saudi royal family, several of whom are known financial supporters of terrorist activity.  What cannot be proved outright, given the diffused – and somewhat confused – power structure of the Saudi government, is whether there are any official state ties to this illicit use of funds.

That said, is well established that the Saudi government directly funds Wahhabi schools and mosques around the world, several of which are known ideological training grounds for religious motivated terrorism.  In both cases the money generated by oil exports flows into the coffers of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and is channeled, either by high ranking citizens or through the financing of learning centers, to support terrorist organizations world wide.  Concluding, therefore, that Saudi government does – if only through demonstrably indirect means – use their wealth to support Wahhabist terrorism, we now return to the culpability of the average American motorist in enabling their behavior.

It is certainly true that without the pressing American need for petroleum Saudi Arabia and her people would, at least in the short term, have significantly fewer financial resources to apply to terrorist affiliated activity.  Also, there is a genuine hypocrisy in the loud protestations made by Americans against the financing of terrorism or the deplored reliance on foreign oil while they continue to drive large gas guzzling trucks and SUVs like the Hummer.  Yet a complete US rejection of Saudi oil, while posing a devastating blow to their market, would not cripple the industry.  The world is full of emerging economies eager to supply petroleum to a new class of drivers, most of whom would not give a second thought to the indirect support of terrorism these purchases will enable.  Still, this brutal geopolitical reality does not outright excuse the part of the American consumer in propping up Saudi success while knowing full well that the money they spend on imported gasoline furthers the cause of our self-described enemies.

At this juncture it is crucial note there exists an implicit claim in the opening argument that not all cars are created equal in the way of supporting terrorism via the Saudi oil market.  This premise begs the question: are some car consumers more virtuous or patriotic than others?  The ever so qualified answer is both yes and no.  Certain vehicles, like Hummers, are clearly higher consumers of gasoline per mile driven, but there are also more complex factors to consider when calculating the total impact of a single driver on the global petroleum industry.  For example, someone may own a Hummer as a luxury vehicle but seldom drive it do to the high cost of refueling or personal lifestyle habits.  Meanwhile, a conscientious Prius owner supposedly trying to do their patriotic duty to lessen our oil dependence, could drive hundreds of miles a week in long commutes and actually use more gas per month than their Hummer owning neighbor.  To be fair, it is far better for the commuter to drive a Prius than a Hummer, but the underlying reality is that ownership of large vehicles does not automatically equate to above average gas consumption.  The problem is not so much the size or efficiency a particular vehicle as it is our entire vehicular driven culture and industry.

It should be acknowledged that the issue of oil dependence and the resulting support of terrorism is a problem of systemic injustice.  We can rebel against or opt out of certain societal ills but others are so ingrained in the cultural mores of a particular era that they must be endured even as the upright work for eventual change.  Sometimes you have to take part in the system in order to change the system.  This does not justify the wrongs associated with a broken or unjust institution, but it may lessen the individual culpability of the people who, by necessity, comply with the broken social patterns of their day.  An element of God’s grace is forgiveness for the ways we are entangled in the societal sins of our specific place and time, as no civilization or era has ever been free from forms of systematic injustice.  However, if we see these problems within our society and choose to ignore them, stay silent, or deny the evil as evil, then a very direct wrong has been committed.

Our fault will lie not necessarily with driving gas-powered vehicles, but in willfully reveling in these luxuries while ignoring the darker consequences of our cultural indulgences.  Americans of conscience ought to buy fuel efficient vehicles not only because of the relief it will lend to their checkbooks but because of the benefits it will have to greater issues like decreasing our petroleum consumption and lowering our carbon footprint (personal views on anthropogenic global warming aside, ways to decrease airborne pollutants should appeal to all).  Efforts to diplomatically tackle direct or indirect financing of terrorism can be advocated though our political system, including concerted efforts to popularize policies like suspending foreign aid to Saudi Arabia.  Additionally, Americans ought to challenge the underlying causes of the gas driven society, perhaps through city planning that is more amenable to walking or widespread private investments in the innovation of new energy technology.

Is it morally wrong or unpatriotic to drive a gas-powered car? I don’t believe so.  However, it may be morally repugnant to see the harmful effects of America’s gas guzzling culture and choose to do nothing to change it for the better.

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