This week, cell phones took on a noble role


I HAVE BEEN firmly in the anti-cell phone camp, but after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, I am rethinking my position.

The news has been filled with compelling accounts of cell phone calls. Some were made from the hijacked planes, some from the World Trade Center. Some were attempted from the rubble of collapsed buildings.

Despite the estimate that some 50 percent of American households have a cell phone, mine does not. I have resisted it, feeling that the cell phone was more style than substance, an unnecessary expense, and more electronic litter.

I inherited some of these feelings from my late father. Cell phones weren't around when he was, but he had little tolerance for telephone conversation. He believed you didn't speak on the telephone unless you had something to say. Judging by the snatches of cell phone conversations I have been forced to listen to - on the train, in line at the ballpark and in a variety of public settings - I think not much of value is being said in these exchanges.

However, that was certainly not the case last week. Barbara Olson picked up a cell phone and made two calls to her husband, Theodore, the Solicitor General of the United States at the Justice Department. In one call, she told him that the flight she was on, American Airlines 77 out of Dulles International Airport, had been hijacked. In another, she reported that the pilot, along with the passengers, had been herded to the back of the plane. This was a vital communication, a strong voice speaking out.

Even more moving were the accounts of the cell phone calls that Jeremy Glick and Thomas E. Burnett Jr. made to their wives from United Airlines Flight 93 before it crashed into an empty field in Pennsylvania. While talking to their wives, the two men learned what happened at the World Trade Center and then vowed to overpower the men who had hijacked their plane, thereby preventing their doomed plane from striking another populated building.

Lyzbeth Glick, who recounted the conversation with her husband for The New York Times, told the newspaper her husband "was a hero for what he did, but he was a hero for me because he told me not to be sad and to take care of our daughter and he said whatever happened he would be OK with any choices I make." Those were brave, loving final words, the kind that most of would like to hear, if we are ever placed in that terrible situation.

Most of us, I think, would also like to be reassured as James Carville, a Democratic political consultant, was last Tuesday in Washington when he took a call from his wife's office saying she was safe. Such calls were made a thousand times over as relatives sought assurance that their loved ones were out of harm's way. But, according to the account I read, this particular telephone conversation had an unusual twist. Carville is married to Mary Matalin, a counselor to Vice President Dick Cheney. So while Carville was told that his wife was safe, as a security measure he could not be told the secret location where she, and the vice president, had set up operations.

Less-convincing accounts of cell phone performance emerged from New York, where after the World Trade Center towers collapsed, many cell phones had trouble.

There was a breathtaking account of two police officers who were pulled from the wreckage of the twin towers after using cell phones to contact rescuers. But stories related to me by Baltimore residents whose friends and relatives tried to contact them last week from lower Manhattan said that the most reliable performers were newfangled wireless pagers and old-fashioned pay telephones.

When a cell phone, or any tool, does not perform you are tempted to toss it. Mulling this over, I come to the not-so-startling conclusion that like many forms of technology, the cell phone is a neutral player. It may encourage frivolous, rude behavior. But it also is an instrument that can at times quickly convey vital information and the profound soundings of the soul.(It also has not escaped my attention that U.S. surveillance forces are hoping that Osama bin Laden, who is suspected of orchestrating last week's terror, will talk on a cell phone in the coming weeks. If he does, the call could be traced by listening devices and there would be a chance that the elusive terrorist could be found and perhaps apprehended.)

Compared to the momentous, sad happenings in New York and Washington, my struggle over whether or not to join the ranks of cell phone owners is a small thing. But I think Tuesday's events will change our mental landscape, will alter, in small ways, how we approach daily life.

A truism that seemed to emerge from the carnage is that when the world we know is shaken, our first concern is locating those we love. It does not really matter what tool we use for the task.

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