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 café 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 television 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 television documentaries for FOX News," I repeated.
"Good," the discussion leader interjected, ignoring my answer and clearly seeing his moment for fifteen 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 U.S."
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 U.S. 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 9-11 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 television 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 Casablanca, Bali and the Philippines. 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. 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 television 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.
Oliver North is a nationally syndicated columnist and the Host of “War Stories” in the FOX News Channel.
Lt. Col. Oliver L. North (ret.) serves as host of the Fox News Channel documentary series "War Stories with Oliver North." From 1983 to 1986, he served as the U.S. government's counterterrorism coordinator on the National Security Council staff. "Counterfeit Lies," is his novel about how Iran is acquiring nuclear weapons and the means of delivering them. Click here for more information on Oliver North.