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Urban Rhythms

Planes, Banes, and Automobiles

By Wiley Hall III | Posted 4/25/2001

Got a couple of things to bray about this week, and I can't decide which one requires braying-about more. So here they are, a couple of Column McNuggets, if you will:

I've been mad at the airline industry for some time--so mad, in fact, that I prefer to drive whenever possible, no matter how much longer it takes to get there. I'd drive across the ocean if I could. My family says I'm a nut.

Now I'm mad at the oil industry. Gasoline prices jumped by nearly 13 cents a gallon over the past two weeks--one of the largest two-week price hikes in history. Some industry analysts say motorists could be paying as much as $2 a gallon or more this summer.

So the question for me now is which industry makes me angrier. I'm mad at the airline industry because the service is so bad: Planes are late, employees are surly, flights are cramped and uncomfortable. What's more, I believe the airlines give us peons poor service on purpose, to justify the high prices they charge the suckers who fly first class.

This infuriates me.

On the other hand, I suspect oil companies are gouging us at the pump each summer, knowing that Americans such as myself are hooked on gasoline the way drug addicts are hooked on heroin. OK, so they jack the price up to $2 a gallon or more. Think I'm going to stop driving? Like an addict, I'll drive until I run out of money. Then I'll simply pull over and work until I get enough cash for a couple of more gallons. My kids will go without milk before I park my car.

It was at about this time last year that I was sneering at the millions and millions of Americans who had bought sport-utility vehicles--those gas-guzzling road hogs that I dubbed "Swinemobiles." Swinemobiles were the hottest things on the auto market last year, outselling any other category of consumer vehicle. This year, though, after a decade of solid double-digit growth, SUV sales have slumped. Consumers are apparently getting hip to the fact that SUVs are neither very sporty nor particularly utilitarian.

Hold on, though. Consumers now seem attracted to something called "crossover -utility vehicles." This category includes such models as the the Toyota RAV4 and the Pontiac Aztec. A CUV is supposed to be like an SUV, except smaller, more fuel efficient, and more practical. If you believe this, you're a dumber swine than you look.

I hear such news and I shake my head and think, These are the dying days of the consumer movement. Try to take a stand against these industries and they'll break you like a reed; let them have their way and they'll suck you dry. So fly, if you want to. I don't care. Or pay exorbitant prices for fuel to stuff your Swinemobile or your crossover piglet. The fat cats rule either way.

I have this theory of what I call the "slippery slope to liberalism." It works like this: You can be a crazed conservative all you want, so long as you look at issues in the most simplistic, one-dimensional terms; so long as you don't think things through; so long as you hold yourself immune from probing questions. But once you begin to use your brain, once you examine issues in all their complexity, you find yourself on that long, inexorable slippery slope to liberalism.

I'll give you an example. Not long ago, I read Tom Clancy's novel Clear and Present Danger, in which a U.S. president authorizes the unleashing of the awesome power of our armed forces against international drug dealers. I cheered as U.S. soldiers tracked down the leaders of South American drug cartels in their jungle lairs and dispatched them to kingdom come. I whooped and hollered as U.S. fighter pilots swooped down on drug couriers in their lumbering civilian planes and blew them out of the air.

Man, I thought, this is great! Why can't we do this in the real world?

I was on my way, you see, to becoming a crazed conservative.

Now, the Peruvian air force has demonstrated the pitfalls of "doing this in the real world," with the generous assistance of the CIA. On April 20, a Peruvian fighter swooped down on a civilian aircraft that had been fingered as a possible drug courier by U.S. observers. The fighter pilot gave the suspect plane a warning--how much of a warning is open to conjecture and debate--and then started shooting, riddling the plane's fuselage with machine-gun fire. In my crazed-conservative mode, I would have liked to see more of this sort of thing. Only it turns out the plane was owned by the Pennsylvania-based Association of Baptists for World Evangelism. And the machine-gun fire killed American missionary Veronica "Roni" Bowers and her 7-month-old daughter, Charity.

This is the sort of tragedy that always seems to occur when folks shoot first and plan on asking questions later. And so, you'll be glad to know that I've returned to the fold, back where I belong, tumbling happily down that slippery slope to liberalism.

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