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Jewish World Review May 11, 2000 / 6 Iyar, 5760

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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Consumer Reports


Ted Koppel, Hitler, Mellencamp . . . and words of love -- THE "if-'Nightline'-had-been-in-existence -when-Hitler-was-around" question came to mind last week, because of a couple of things.

The question -- how would history have been changed had "Nightline," and television, been a part of our world when Hitler was coming to power -- is one I think of during most world crises. If television had been around in the years that led up to World War II, and if Hitler had answered questions live from Ted Koppel, or Koppel's 1939-'40-'41 counterpart, would World War II have happened? Could it have been defused -- if the planet had been able to look Hitler in the face, live, if he had answered questions before a global public, would he have gotten away with what he did?

The impulse is to say no -- the impulse is to say that modern communications would have been the end of Hitler, before he really got started. But perhaps not -- perhaps he would have been able to use the live television camera as the greatest propaganda tool at his disposal. Perhaps he would have been able to use a 1939 "Nightline" as a recruiting tool for his point of view.

What brought this up is two e-mails I recently received -- and also, the "I love you" computer-message mess last week.

The first e-mail (and I'm going on trust here -- you never really know from whom or where your electronic messages are coming) was from a 43-year-old man who said he lived in St. Petersburg, Russia. "I want to know what your readers think about Russia and Russian people," the man wrote. "And from myself and from many inhabitants of St. Petersburg I want to say: `Let's communicate direct.'" He went on for a while; he said that his hobby was collecting fire department badges and medals, and that he wanted to trade with Americans.

I thought about how scared of Russia, and Russians, we had been taught to be when we were Cold War children; I thought of what would have happened during my childhood if, unsolicited, a letter from the Soviet Union had arrived at our home. What would we have done? Probably called the FBI. Probably have been terrified -- how did someone in Russia find our house on our block?

Now you don't even really ask yourself that question. Someone somewhere taps a key, and the connection is established. The second electronic letter -- from the Philippines -- was from a 19-year-old man who told me there is a book of mine he has been reading since he was 16. The book was not available in his school library, he said, so he had to travel to a provincial library to get it. Apparently it wasn't a book he could take home -- he had to keep going back to the library to read it.

He, too, taps a key -- and I find out what his story is. It makes you think of the endless possibilities of our new world -- and then the "I love you" thing happens, and you realize that it could all come tumbling down. That we can be reached by unfriendly electronic visitors just as easily as by amiable ones.

(By the way . . . a nice little short story could be written about the worldwide e-mail mess last week. The plot: A woman, during the first week of May in the year 2000, decides that she wants to reestablish contact with the man who means the most to her. They have been apart; she does not know how to tell him what she's thinking. Does she write? Maybe he won't see the letter. Does she call? She's too afraid -- what if his voice is unwelcoming? She decides to e-mail him. She gets no response. She goes through the rest of her life, she grows old, never knowing whether he read her e-mail and rejected her -- or whether he never saw it. Because the message-line words on the note she had written to him that night in May 2000, the words she chose to serve as a label for her message, were: "I love you." The next day was the day the e-mail screwup hit the world -- the day that people were instructed to delete without reading any message that carried the label "I love you." So she never knew whether he had seen what she had written -- whether he had ever clicked open her letter.)

All right . . . getting a little carried away there. But it is a modern dilemma -- the world has an unobstructed pipeline to any of us, and the ramifications of that are so complicated that we're only just beginning to figure them out. Probably best to end today's column with words from a commencement speech that was delivered last weekend. The speaker was John Mellencamp, at Indiana University. He told the graduating students that the somber and serious concerns that await them in the business world may seem important, but:

"Take this with you from me: Try to enjoy your life, 'cause this is it, baby. This is all we got."

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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