BIG PEOPLE AREN’T KEEPING US SAFE

It’s one of our first assumptions in life: The big people will take care of us.

When we’re infants, it’s our mother and father. When we’re schoolchildren, it’s our teachers. As we go along, it’s police, doctors, airplane pilots.

We assume that because they are in charge, they will watch out for us.

And as adults, that attitude can get us killed.

That’s because the notion that “the big people will take care of us” has been so imbedded in our psyches that we apply it in places where we shouldn’t: namely, big business.

Never was this more apparent than a few weeks back, when ABC’s “20/20” did a report on cell phones. It featured Dr. George Carlo, who ran the cell phone industry’s research program for six years until he quit in a pique of conscience. The industry — worth $200 billion a year — wanted him to continue saying all was well. He couldn’t.

“We now have some direct evidence of possible harm from cellular phones,” he said.

Shocking? More shocking was the fact that cell phones were made and sold in this country before there was any government testing done on them at all. The government simply relied on the cell phone makers to police themselves, which is like letting a cat tell the mice when it’s safe to come out.

In fact, the cell phone industry hired Dr. Carlo in the first place only because it was sued by a man whose wife died of brain cancer in 1993, which he blamed on her cell phone use. The case was ultimately thrown out for lack of scientific evidence, but it made stockholders nervous. So the industry hired Carlo, not because it was worried about killing people but because it was worried about losing investors.

Silencing whistle-blowers

Didn’t you figure that was impossible? Wasn’t there a voice inside you that said, “They wouldn’t make cell phones if they weren’t safe”?

Never mind that deep down, you sensed that microwave signals so close to your head had to be dangerous. But the big people wouldn’t let us endanger ourselves, right?

How can we be so naive? Look at the tobacco industry. It is just now admitting that, yes, cigarette smoking can be addictive. Just now! Cigarettes are addictive. Wow.

A new film, “The Insider,” depicts the lengths to which the tobacco industry goes to silence a whistle-blower. It is obviously more cost-effective to try to shut up the few people who threaten you than to take care of the threat you pose to everyone else.

And the bigger the business gets, the truer this is. Last week’s crash of an Egyptian airliner brought a similarly chilling lesson. Boeing, the maker of that doomed aircraft, was found to have sat on a report that showed a dangerous design problem in 747s. This report clearly said that putting a fuel tank near an air-conditioning unit — such as the placement in the 747 — posed a risk. The unit could run so hot that it could create flammable vapors.

Flammable? Near a fuel tank? Yes. Such combustion might have caused the crash of TWA flight 800 in 1996.

Boeing had this report, but let it sit on a shelf for 19 years. Nineteen years? Didn’t you figure the big people would never do something like that?

Big bucks go to politicians

The truth is, we live in a profit society. So much now is done in the name of making money that nothing else matters. Including human beings. You see this in small ways with the downsizing of employees.

And you see it in big ways in the countless dollars spent trying to influence the government. Why do you think it has been so hard to do anything to the tobacco industry? Because it spends money on lobbying lawmakers and gives money to get those lawmakers elected.

Today, as big companies buy out other big companies, the power to suppress information becomes greater. Can you imagine if computer chips were dangerous or if ATM machines caused cancer? Who could afford to take on those industries?

Our lives are so dominated by corporations interested solely in profit. Yet we cling to the notion of trust because we want to believe those more powerful will somehow protect us.

It’s naive. It’s dangerous. If you don’t believe it, check out the guy heading for a plane, smoking and talking on a cell phone. He’s also figuring the big people will keep him safe.

MITCH ALBOM can be reached at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Listen to Mitch’s radio show, “Albom in the Afternoon,” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM
(760).

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