It was only a matter of time: A new television ad campaign suggests that if you drive a sport -utility vehicle, you are helping terrorism by putting money in the pockets of oil-producing, terrorism-sponsoring countries like Saudi Arabia and Iraq. One of the commercials cuts from a man at a gas station to a map of the Middle East to video footage of a terrorist training camp, while a little girl's voice says, "These are the terrorists who get money from those countries every time George fills up his SUV."
The commercials, which started to air on Sunday, are already causing controversy. Some local television stations have refused to run them because of concerns about their accuracy. Spokesmen for the auto industry have been dismissive, and even Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, a leading proponent of tougher fuel efficiency standards, has distanced himself from the ads' accusatory message.
While I don't drive an SUV, I have little sympathy for anti-SUV rhetoric, which often replaces facts and reasoned analysis with a quasi-religious zeal to denounce America's sins of excessive consumption. The ads linking SUV ownership to terrorism are the latest manifestation of this mindset, and one can point to numerous problems with their premise.
Drivers of small cars fill up at the same gas pumps as SUV owners; it's not just what you drive, it's how much you drive. ("I say if your drive your offspring to any superfluous activity besides school, you're supporting terrorism," a friend of mine sarcastically suggested.) Critics point out that some of the wealthy sponsors of these commercials live in vast, oil-heated homes, have fleets of cars, and fly private jets.
In one sense, however, the ads are most welcome—as a parody of the even more ludicrous commercials from the Office of National Drug Control Policy, which assert that anyone who uses drugs is helping support terrorism.
The "drug money funds terrorism" ad campaign was launched by the government a year ago. First, there were the ads in which clean-cut teenagers and young adults stared into the camera saying things like "I helped blow up a building." A new series of ads, currently on the airwaves, shows two men in suits discussing the connection between drugs and terrorism. The younger man, who looks rather clueless, tries to argue that it's a complicated issue; his older- and wiser-looking companion quickly sets him straight, and he concludes, "Not that complicated."
It's hard to think of a more blatant insult to the intelligence of the American public than this crass attempt to exploit the tragedy of Sept. 11 for the antidrug agenda.
Do terrorists sometimes benefit from drug profits? The answer is yes. The heroin and opium trade in Central Asia has been identified, in particular, as a source of funding for terrorist groups including the Taliban and Al Qaeda. But there really is more than one side to this issue. The Taliban also profited from our war on drugs, receiving $43 million from the US government in 2001 for the purpose of eradicating Afghanistan's heroin-producing poppy fields. And whatever one thinks of the various pros and cons of drug legalization, it's hard to deny that prohibition is what allows criminal groups, including terrorists, to profit from the drug trade.
Meanwhile, as the Drug Policy Alliance notes, the federal authorities have yet to come up with conclusive proof of a single case in which proceeds from drug dealing in the United States went to Middle Eastern terrorists. And some claims about the drug-terror link are downright misleading. Thus, drug war zealots have cited evidence that Ecstasy trade has a Middle Eastern connection, obviously implying a terrorist link. In fact, the organized crime groups allegedly involved in Ecstasy trafficking consist of Israelis from the former Soviet Union—who may not be nice guys, of course, but can hardly be suspected of funneling money to the Al Qaeda.
Surely, Americans who get locked up for growing marijuana plants in their basements have not given any aid or comfort to international terrorists. Yet somehow, I doubt that we'll see an ad campaign with the slogan, "Fight terrorism—grow your own pot!"
In the past two decades, the US government has expended billions of dollars and untold human effort on the War on Drugs. Just when the terrorist threat might have made us question the wisdom of this investment, the drug warriors quickly piggybacked onto the War against Terrorism. Come to think of it, it's not that complicated.