HEIDELBERG, GERMANY -- The streets of this quaint university town are less photogenic these days. Much to the chagrin of the city fathers -- and businesses relying on tourism -- nearly every corner is filled with very un-Teutonic piles of garbage -- the detritus of a weeks-long public workers strike. The accumulated trash may be an eyesore -- and eventually a haven for vermin and rats -- but it hasn't kept the local university students off the streets -- or dampened their enthusiasm for "bringing down the system." All this I learned quite unexpectedly while visiting here to make a documentary on the life and death of General George S. Patton. Old "Blood and Guts" had liberated this city in 1945 and died not far from here after a car crash in December that year.
For two nights in a row, I was awakened by boisterous college-age shouting and laughter from the street in front of the ancient hostelry where our FOX News production team was billeted. Unable to sleep, I arose to go for a walk -- and stepped into a time warp.
Most of the noise was coming from the open portals of an Internet cafe and coffee shop a few paces across the cobblestones from the hotel. A bearded young man, wearing a beret and coiffed like Che Guevara, was speaking passionately in German to a half-dozen others seated at a round table. As I started to pass, he looked up and said, "Hello! You're an American, aren't you?"
"Why do you ask?" I responded.
"We saw you on the bridge with the TV cameras this afternoon. You are an American newsman, yes?"
"Yes, I'm an American, and I work for FOX News. We're here making a documentary about General George Patton."
"Are you here to cover the strike?" one of the bright-eyed youngsters inquired.
"No. I make TV documentaries for FOX News," I repeated.
"Good," the discussion leader interjected, ignoring my answer and clearly seeing his moment for 15 minutes of "on-air" fame. "You should document us," he said boldly. "We're going to Caracas to help 'the Revolution.'"
Immediately, one of the young women seated at the table raised her fist and said in German, "Nein!" and then, for the benefit of the gringo, she continued in English, "We're going to Paris to join our fellow students on the barricades against capitalism."
For the next hour or so, these half-dozen college kids debated the merits of spending several weeks supporting either the anti-capitalist student strike in Paris -- or the Marxist (they called it "re-distributionist") agenda of Venezuelan strong-man Hugo Chavez. It was ultimately resolved in favor of going to Paris -- because it would be more affordable -- but during this often-passionate debate, each expressed a desire to spend their "Spring Break" doing something to help damage American prestige -- or, as they put it, to "bring down the arrogant United States."
It was a fascinating experience. Since FOX News isn't on the local cable service, these youngsters had no idea that my only "beat" is the U.S. military. Unlike American college students, their professors hadn't had a chance to tell them of my role in the "evil Reagan administration." It was also clear that their youthful idealism and exuberance are being shaped by information that depicts the United States and the Bush administration as anything but forces for good in the world.
Though hardly a scientific sampling of European public opinion, these students' perspectives on the U.S. role in defeating fascism, communism, in bringing down the wall, of standing up to Islamic terror were both shallow and twisted. According to them, Germany would have rid itself of Hitler without "terror bombing German civilians"; the Americans "created the 'Red-Scare' to divide and punish Germany; the wall would have come down decades earlier but for the presence of U.S. bases in Europe; the Sept. 11 attack was concocted by the Bush administration; German troops should never have been sent to Afghanistan, and -- because this is much on the news here right now -- U.S. troops in Iraq routinely commit atrocities and human-rights violations. They were unaware of this week's forceful presidential speeches, press conference and question/answer sessions -- perhaps understandably, because they have been little covered in European TV and newspapers.
Interestingly, none of them had particularly strong views on the threat posed by radical Islamic terror. Several expressed a belief that Madrid and London were attacked solely because their respective governments supported U.S. policy in Iraq. None of them could explain why there had also been attacks in Bali, the Philippines and Casablanca, Morocco. Nor did any of them perceive that nuclear weapons in Iran were a threat to them -- only to the United States.
It would be easy to dismiss these students as willfully ignorant, but that's too easy. Given the history of elite European universities like Heidelberg, many of these youngsters will eventually become leaders in government and business. They all acknowledged getting their "news" from TV and the Internet. They are paying attention to what's happening in Iraq, though it's pretty clear that many, if not most, already have a strong anti-American bias. Turning around these perceptions is going to require more than just a few presidential speeches. If President Bush wants to get American and European attention -- he ought to make his next speech on keeping commitments while standing before U.S. troops in Iraq.