Like most motorists, I am not relishing the very real prospect that a gallon of gas may soon cost $5. But instead of swearing under my breath at the gas station, I’ll look away from the frustrating spin of the pump’s tally and remind myself that what I’m paying for is democracy.
Even before President Vladimir Putin of Russia launched his unprovoked war against Ukraine, gas prices were rising. Now with President Biden’s ban on Russian oil, gas, and coal imports, the most severe sanctions levied so far against Russia, the cost for filling up may not hit a ceiling anytime soon. But Biden reminded Americans that “defending freedom” comes at a price.
“If we do not respond to Putin’s assault on global peace and stability today,” Biden said, “the cost of freedom and to the American people will be even greater tomorrow.”
That deeper cost is something Ukrainians already recognize. In a recent interview on NBC News, a young Ukrainian woman said her message to Putin is that “We are here, we are ready to fight. We want to have our homeland independent, free, and we will have it.”
Ukraine must have it. However long this war lasts, spending more for gas seems an acceptable price to put pressure on Putin and help protect not just Ukraine’s democracy, but our own.
I recognize my own privilege here. Since I don’t drive to work, I can stretch a gallon of gas much further than people who don’t have the same access to public transportation or have jobs where much of their workday is spent behind the wheel. Fortunately, I’m far removed from my days as a young reporter in South Florida, where I once racked up 27,000 miles in a single year.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, gas prices are 38 percent higher now than in February 2021. For me, those prices are an annoyance. They don’t bring the kind of hardships that force others to choose between filling their tank and making sure there’s enough food on the table. With today’s near-historic levels of inflation, Americans are hurting.
Yet the surge in gas prices is not mass displacement from home, community, and country. That extra cost is not tantamount to millions of Ukrainian families now separated at border crossings and left with nothing but their faith that they will be reunited. It is not the agony inflicted on a nation whose familiar hum of daily life has been replaced by the scream of Putin’s missiles aimed at schools, apartment buildings, even a maternity and children’s hospital.
Not long after America entered World War II, the government began a rationing system. Tires, gas, coffee, sugar, and metal were among the goods that became scarce for citizens so that they could be used to bolster the war effort. Of course, some took advantage by hoarding highly desired items or selling them on the black market. Yet there remained a prevailing sense of people united and willing to make sacrifices to preserve democracy in the face of tyranny.
By contrast, we’ve witnessed in the past two years just how little many Americans care about the common good. Though most states have dropped their COVID-19 mandates, there remain some people like those in the absurd “Freedom Convoy” still whining about protocols during an ongoing pandemic that has killed more than 6 million worldwide, including nearly 1 million Americans.
That crybaby convoy is a right-wing temper tantrum. Ukrainians are showing the world what it really means to fight for freedom.
“Despite the fact that the war is taking place in Ukraine, it’s essentially for values in life — for democracy, for freedom,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told a CNN reporter. “Therefore, this war is for all the world. And that message should be sent far and wide from Ukraine to people in the United States so they understand what it is like for us here, what we are fighting for, and why support for Ukraine matters.”
Enemies of democracy and every coward who admires Putin are watching what’s happening in Ukraine and taking notes. Meanwhile, hashtags and Ukrainian flag emojis on social media might look good, but current events demand that the rest of us do more than marvel at a nation refusing to surrender to an autocrat’s inhumanity.
This is also our war. From the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection at the US Capitol to the ongoing assault on voting rights, we know the fragility of a democracy under attack. Surging gas prices might be only the beginning of our sacrifices. But whatever comes next, it will be nothing compared with what Ukraine — and the world — stand to lose if Putin wins.