As Gulf Coast refineries sputtered and choked in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, causing gas prices to soar, Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue hustled to the microphone to say he was suspending gasoline taxes in the state.
Not to be outdone, Georgia legislators rushed to Atlanta for a special session to endorse Mr. Perdue's move. They burned a lot of $3 gas to get here, but who among them could pass up the chance to brag that they, too, cared deeply about the price per gallon?
And so it went around the country, as state politicians moved to suspend gasoline taxes, guaranteeing that the price at the pump would stay relatively low. (All states levy a flat tax on sales at the pump; several collect an additional sales tax.)
Even members of Congress found the idea impossible to resist. Two weeks ago, three Republicans introduced a bill to impose a moratorium on the 18.4-cents-per-gallon federal gas tax.
What a spectacular failure of leadership.
The last thing this country needs is to keep gas prices low - thereby encouraging American consumers to keep up our greedy consumption of fossil fuels. Our addiction to petroleum has kept us hostage to the Middle East. We pay Middle Eastern oil countries billions in petrodollars, and some of that cash inevitably ends up in the hands of people who want to kill us.
Let's not forget that 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 came not from Iraq but from Saudi Arabia. Yet we continue to do business with the Saudis, though it is perfectly clear that they still support the fundamentalist clerics who spread terrorism. We're junkies - "oiloholics," as The Economist magazine called us - who will do anything to keep the supply open.
A furious storm season - Katrina, Ophelia, Rita - offered the country's political leaders the perfect opportunity to allow gas prices to drift upward. (The nation is led by Republicans, supposedly free-market conservatives, after all.) That would have encouraged conservation and invited serious support for research into alternative fuels.
But politicians up and down the line, from the White House to Congress to state capitals, have chosen to pander to their constituents instead. Rather than confront the hard truth - that a sustained campaign against terrorists will demand sacrifices from all of us - our leaders pretend that we can keep doing things the way we've always done them.
The House and Senate passed an energy bill two months ago, but the closest they could bring themselves to promoting conservation was a proposal to extend daylight-saving time by four weeks, starting in 2007. They demanded precious little in the way of increased fuel efficiency for cars and trucks.
Even if our petrodollars didn't enable terrorists, there would still be good reason to start a serious national initiative to wean us off fossil fuels. They are running out. Some geologists believe that oil production will peak in the next few years. And at least one respected geophysicist has suggested that China and the United States will eventually go to war over dwindling oil supplies.
But China isn't the biggest culprit here. As The Economist notes, "It is easy to point a finger at China's growing oil demand ... but America remains the biggest consumer, using one-quarter of the world's output of the black stuff."
As it turns out, the American public is well ahead of its "leaders." Storm damage to the oil-producing infrastructure has already refined their thinking on issues such as conservation. According to a poll by the Pew Research Center, conducted just after Katrina struck, 86 percent support requiring higher fuel efficiency in motor vehicles. Sixty-eight percent want more money for mass transit.
There is no reason to wait until we've descended to a Road Warrior-like purgatory. (Even the minor disruptions caused by Hurricane Katrina prompted long gas lines in some Southeastern cities and enraged motorists, a few of whom drew guns to force their way to the front.) A nation that put a man on the moon could surely launch a decade-long search for sustainable fuels.
What will it take for the Bush White House to take its foot off the gas and face up to the obvious? Perhaps when Congress installs wind turbines in front of its members.
Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
© 2005 Baltimore Sun