Another ‘never again’ moment

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If government insists upon regulating everything except itself, then those energies should be directed at a rather loud and rude killer: cell phones.

For years the effects of prolonged cell phone use have been hinted-at and rumored about like country folklore. It has been whispered like a Luddite prophesy in the spirit of “videogames causing ADHD.” However, this month’s issue of Harper’s Magazine brings the anecdotal into focus. Cell phones emit roughly the same frequency of radiation as microwave ovens and today reach a market of more than four billion people—60 percent of the world’s population. A review by UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health found a correlation between prolonged cell phone use and the risk for developing brain tumors.

Our love affair with the cell phone is now more than a decade old and their presence is ubiquitous. In D.C., the most profound and attentive relationships seem to occur between politicos and their BlackBerrys. The notorious Beltway traffic has become even more stop-and-go, as drivers dart their eyes between the road and the glowing orb in their hand. Lines at Starbucks have become a chorus of half-conversations, the inanity of which inspires plummeting confidence in human possibility.

Across America, cell phones have become the cigarette of the 21st century. They give the hand something to do while the rest of you is occupied. They are life rafts for the antisocial, allowing one to drift from the immediate physical world. What’s more, they have spared an entire generation the need to survive a moment alone with an unanchored thought—leaving one to wonder how many unexpected ideas have been lost to the glowing distractions of an ironically named Smartphone.

Questioning the safety of cell phones continues to be met with incredulous stares. This is to be expected. In the life cycle of a disaster this one—if accurate—is in its infancy. We remain so amused by the newness of the cell phone that its effects haven’t warranted a collective pause. We are, today, where we were with tobacco in the 17th century—a crop, native to America that delighted the masses, took the world by storm and ultimately killed 100 million people during the 20th century.

With a cell phone market of 4 billion people, the potential impact to public health is self evident. Rather than rushing in after the fact with reflective regulation—that woeful scene where politicians stand atop the smoldering rubble of another disaster, crying “Never again!”—government should issue a definitive warning. “Never again!” moments are not constructive and, given what we know of the Space-Time Continuum, they are also some of the more foolish words one can utter, even euphemistically.

It will take leadership, the kind willing to chance looking foolish, that prefers the vindication of history to the applause that attends sound bytes. Given the opportunity, bureaucrats and industry lobbyists will ask, with straight humorless faces, for statistics on the effects of microwaving your brain each day.

Future generations will consider it nothing short of lunacy that man ever thought it a good idea to hold a source of radiation to his head. There will come a day when your own grandchildren will ask, legs crossed around a campfire, “You people really thought that self-nuking your brain each day was a good idea?”

In that moment you will find yourself partaking in an ancient tradition, the generational shrug of explaining the Wild West days of your youth—America at the millennium. “Look, they were different times,” you’ll say, “we didn’t know any better and we really didn’t want to.” In the 17th Century, European nobles poisoned themselves with lead-based white face paint to appear paler. In the 20th, 100 million smokers never made it to the bingo hall. And one day you may just hear yourself saying aloud, “Yes, people once paid good money to radiate their brains.” Therein you will pass along the recurring lesson of human history: mass cultural acceptance of any phenomenon is far more influential than common sense.

Eben Carle served in the White House as an Associate Director on the Homeland Security Council from 2008-2009. He received a master’s degree in American studies from Columbia University and is currently writing his first novel.

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