There is a difference between profiting and profiteering, and it's important that we get the two concepts straight as we prepare for what looks like a very long war.
Profiting is monetary gain from the use of capital in transactions. Profiteering is the act of charging exorbitant prices to capitalize unreasonably on a shortage.
Last week, executives at business-to-business cataloger Lab Safety Supply refused an interview because they didn't want to appear that they were profiting from the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
Lab Safety sells masks, gloves, first-aid kits, etc. Its sensitivity is certainly understandable.
Of course they are profiting from the unspeakable acts of Sept. 11.
But not only is it not wrong, it's the company's duty.
I was on the last commuter train from Jersey City, NJ, into the World Trade Center — ever.
I've lived in the towers' shadows for four years. For just as long, I've apparently also lived side-by-side with some of the evil bastards who committed the attacks.
As a longtime vocal proponent of free-market capitalism, words fall short of being able to convey how proud I was of living in such close proximity to the two tallest symbols of our architectural ingenuity, our work ethic and our economic freedom and strength.
“As long as you're headed toward the towers, you're on your way to my neighborhood,” I would tell people unsure of driving directions to my home.
My home. They bombed my home.
New Yorkers and their tri-state area co-workers are no longer numb to sirens. Hearing them wail now intensifies an ache that sometimes is sharp, sometimes is dull, but nonetheless feels like it will never go away.
Except, that is, for when rage drowns it out.
We lost more than 6,000 friends and neighbors in those attacks. I watched some of them fall to their deaths. Photos don't convey how long it takes to fall that far.
Many people have been saying how different this war will be from any other we've fought because, for example, our enemies aren't looking to occupy territory and that it will never be clear when and if we win once and for all.
But this war will have one major similarity to all earlier wars. It will be expensive.
The effort to prevent the vicious, primitive savages who terrorize from blowing up more people's homes will take lots of cash.
And no one is better at making cash than members of the U.S. business community. That's apparently one of the main reasons the terrorists hate us with such unfathomable depth to begin with.
And if we begin to feel guilty for our capacity to ethically profit, we begin giving in to them.
American executives must look at this war as a market condition and begin to do business accordingly.
The tones of many ad campaigns will certainly change to reflect the national mood, but the object should be the same: Get people to buy stuff.
If Americans want red, white and blue candles, then damn it, make 'em and sell 'em.
If they want gas masks, then make those, too.
And if merchants choose to donate the profits to the American Red Cross or United Way, more power to them.
But under no circumstances should anyone feel guilty for profiting from products sold during the crisis, or because of the crisis.
The best way for marketers to answer the unfathomable acts of Sept. 11 is by doing what they do best: driving what is still the most vibrant and free economy in the world.
For once, the resulting tax revenue will at least be put to a use for which an overwhelming majority of us can agree