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Guzzle gas, and pretend

GASOLINE IS over $2.50 a gallon, the death toll of American soldiers in Iraq is over 1,850, and what patriotic, heroic displays of sacrifice can we find on the American landscape?

Bigger garages. Bigger houses. New fuel economy standards that will omit the biggest cars. Hoo-aah.

Brave Marines we are. From the halls of McMansions to the steps of our SUVs, we fight our exurban battles, ripping up every living tree.

Next month will mark four years since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. Four years is a time period often associated with sending children off to institutions of higher learning in the assumption they will become members of an enlightened citizenry.

But the four years since 9/11 have come and gone with no sign that the United States sees the light. As soldiers pay the ultimate price in Afghanistan and Iraq, we continue to be toy soldiers, the invulnerable warriors of consumption. No report of a real soldier dying from a roadside bomb, no administration assertion that fades into falsehood, not even fill-ups that hit $40 and $50 a tank has spurred us to question our schizophrenic nature.

For four years, Americans have waved flags and stuck ''Support the Troops" magnets on the backs of their cars. Such acts, of course, stem from sincere sentiments we all share for their safety. But we can no longer escape our responsibility in one of the most insincere wars in the nation's history.

We have allowed a president to send off the sons and daughters of the working class and the poor to invade Iraq, killing thousands of innocent Iraqi working class and poor along the way. As each day passes, the fact that no Osama has been flushed out, the fact that no weapons of mass destruction have been found, and the fact that there was never a tie between Saddam Hussein and 9/11 becomes not just Bush's responsibility but ours as well.

Americans probably know this deep down. It is almost as if we are binging to distract us from the needless killing. We build bigger subdivisions as far out as we can, no matter what it means in commuting time and $2.55 gasoline.

Even though the average size of the American family has shrunk, the average size of a new home has grown from an average of 983 square feet in 1950 to 2,330 square feet today, according to the National Association of Home Builders. The percentage of new homes over 2,400 square feet has zoomed from 10 percent in 1970 to 38 percent today. The percentage of new homes with two-car garages has grown from 39 percent in 1970 to 82 percent today.

In a New York Times feature this week about ''living large" in the exurbs, a sales representative joked with a family that was looking at a model home, ''Lots of places to hide, aren't there, boys?" It is mathematically impossible for the rest of the world to live like this. As the boys play hide and seek for a moment, the parents play out the fantasy that hiding from the reality of consuming a quarter of the world's energy and producing a quarter of the world's greenhouse gases is an all-American right.

Unfortunately, it is difficult for a populace to be enlightened if its leader keeps leaving it in the dark. President Bush, according to the Times, is planning to leave out mega-SUVs such as Hummers from new fuel economy standards, apparently to ease the competitive strain on Detroit, which has invested far more in selling gas guzzlers than foreign automakers. With the explosion of SUVs (trucks now account for 50 percent of light-duty vehicle sales), the nation's average fuel economy has been flat for a quarter century and has actually fallen slightly, from 22.1 miles per gallon in 1987 to 21 miles per gallon today.

It is now the responsibility of Americans to turn on the lights in the White House. It is understandable that the United States prefers presidents who enable our denial. The death of each soldier denies us that privilege. Supporting the troops just might involve rethinking what it means to have a ''Support the Troops" magnet on an SUV, and asking ourselves if we need that much room in the exurbs to hide from each other.

Derrick Z. Jackson's e-mail address is

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