The Belly of the Beast:

Exploring the Even Darker Side of America's Love Affair with the SUV

by Olivia Kienzel

I used to think that the SUV would be the thing to finally drive me from this country for good. Sure, I've always had a soft spot for Western Europe and a desire to move there, but when these enormous monstrosities starting sprouting on the street like weeds, I thought it was probably the last straw and I might not be able to take this country much longer.

In my estimation, these vehicular behemoths were the mascot for all that was disgusting and wrong with our culture, and now it was in my face whenever I left the house, impossible to ignore: the emphasis of appetite over passion, of image over actual utility, the belief that bigger was certainly better, and above all, a sense of supreme entitlement. If you've got enough money (or just the power to secure a substantial enough credit line), you should be able to take up as much space as you want. You should feel emboldened to cut across four lanes of traffic, even when the right of way is not yours. You should not hesitate to take up two parking spaces if you got there first. If no one can see around your massive vehicle, they must not be rich enough to buy their own massive vehicle, which is too bad for them and must mean they're lazy, and therefore do not deserve to see whatever hazards might be ahead of them on the road. And if you hit and kill someone because your vehicle is so much larger than theirs, well, that's just Darwinism, isn't it? Survival of the richest? One woman, interviewed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, admitted that, after killing someone in a crash that matched her large SUV against his passenger car, she didn't blink. She went out the very next day and bought a bigger SUV.

Soccer moms thought of the SUV as their salvation, it seems. They could cart a bunch of people and kids around in a car that made them feel safe, but that also made them look as if they weren't the child-raising suburban dwellers that they actually were. (Of course, one popular SUV is actually named the Suburban, but that's a subject for another time. The thesis still holds up, however, when you consider the monikers bestowed on most other models, e.g. the Blazer, the Exterra, the Landcruiser, the Range Rover, and the Explorer.)

Ironically enough, SUV owners themselves have done a great deal to undermine the image they believed they had purchased -- and at such a high markup too. Years ago, as the trend was just starting to develop, a bunch of SUV owners went to Congress to ask them to repeal the outdoor tax that's attached to all utility vehicles. The tax was designed as a small way of counterbalancing the damage that off-roaders might do to wilderness areas. Their reason for the request? Hardly any of them ever actually took or planned to take their vehicles off-road. Never mind that the SUV was already part of an actual protected class, receiving important exemptions to fuel economy and safety standards because of its designation as a light truck. They still didn't think they should have to pay extra, merely because they were using their vehicles in a way in which they weren't originally designed.

Most ironically, however, is that the shear popularity of SUVs and the demographic and personality profiles of those who drive them is what has undermined the freewheeling outdoorsy image most of all. When you see a Yukon XXL in front of you on the highway, do you picture a strapping, six-foot-tall, flannel-clad Alaskan bear-hunter driving it, his snowshoes and rifle piled in the back, or do you assume that a middle-aged mom is steering the wheel, cell phone in one hand and coffee in the other, on her way to the Gap?

These soccer moms and soccer dads, strangely enough, weren't deterred by reports of higher rollover rates, of families devastated by crashes that rendered some of them paraplegic, some vegetative, and others just plain dead. The fact that they had bought these cars with the idea of increased safety somewhere in their minds did not seem to jive with the idea that, if it rolled over (as SUVs are six times likelier to do), it might kill them and their children. One can only imagine that the offensive idea was merely discarded therefore, like so many U.N. resolutions that look as though they might lose if put to the vote. Even the most alarming trend to spring up recently in connection with SUVs that of parents actually running over their own small children because they cant see them from the high, kingly seat on which they perch has failed to dissuade many from shelling out good money and lots of it for the monolithically enormous road menaces. One man, upon driving over his two-year-old daughter, kept right on going because, in his words, he thought he had hit the curb.

In fact, the only thing that has ever threatened to cause a hiccup in the ever-increasing profit margins of the SUV market was the recent war and the higher gas prices it created. (It doesn't help that the economic downturn has placed many in a difficult position if not unemployed, then certainly a bit overextended in their debt-to-income ratio, thanks to stock market losses and pay cuts.) I had a little hope, for some time, that the For Sale signs I saw popping up on the behemoths everywhere would continue to sprout for the foreseeable future. Failing all logical arguments, I was sure or at least cautiously hopeful that obvious self-interest might finally win out. One of my friends, owner of several consecutive Explorer models over the past six years, informed me that, to my delight, she would be trading in her SUV for a Mini Cooper. A coworker who commutes 90 miles a day in the Yukon his conservative wife made him buy recently started showing up in her Saturn.

But now that the war has been won so quickly, and those in Washington saw that Iraqi oil started pumping again before the power was even back on in Baghdad, I'm not so sure that all my dearest hopes haven't been dashed after all.

More than my fear of being hit by an SUV, my disgust for those who drive them, and the offense I feel at how much room they take up, I find myself genuinely frightened by what I've glimpsed recently. Little did I know, back when I was trying to decide between slapping bumper stickers bearing the Saudi Arabian flag on these Urban Assault Vehicles, or peppering them with forged, but very realistic-looking tickets for breaking the laws of common decency, that the SUV was not so much a problem as it was a symptom of something darker than my annoyed little brain could ever have imagined.

As it turned out, the popularity of a modified tank as the symbol of American culture and values was merely a warning shot across the bow of those who truly love this country and everything its supposed to stand for actual freedom, true security, genuine democracy. Looking back at my criticisms of the SUV -- for its unchecked consumption, its fetishization of hollow conquest, its me-firstness, its hypocritical nature, its perversion of the ideal of freedom, its hyper-Darwinism all of these terrible values and the uber-entitlement that begets them came to the fore, a thousand times stronger, in the recent war waged on Iraq. It was all far more horrible than I had ever imagined. Not only did we have the SUV, we had the SUV President waging the SUV war.

The inability of so many Americans to hold a complex thought in their heads this vehicle looks safer, but it actually isn't; this war will be easy to win, but it's actually going to encourage more terrorism; George W. Bush is our president, but not everything he says is correct; though Arab and Muslim by birth, Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with September 11th; and worst of all, though he is their ruler, the Iraqi people who will die in this war might not agree with Saddam Hussein or his policies was embodied most efficiently, it turned out, in Americans adoration of the SUV and their propensity to stick American flags all over their personal consumption vessels. Never mind that our dependence on foreign oil and our tendency to support repressive Middle Eastern governments to get it might have been in some large part responsible for the terrorist attacks made on our nation. Never mind that a Hummer uses as much gas as a bus that carries 71 people. The reason we fought all those wars was apparently to establish the liberties and democracy enjoyed by lucky Americans all over this country the freedom to speak your mind (if you agree with the President), to know that your vote will be counted (if you're a Republican), and to drive an SUV (if you can afford it).

I guess it turns out I was wrong when I leave, it wont be the SUV that drives me away. It will have to be a boat or a plane, because Western Europe is a long way away, and can only be reached by crossing a great deal of water.

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