Killer ATMs

Did you know that the envelopes at ATM machines can kill you? Or that sitting down in a movie theater can cost you your life? Preposterous, you say? Not to millions of people on the Internet—a place where even the most absurd urban legend can gain an audience. For the past few months, millions of Internet subscribers have received an ominous e-mail describing a Toronto woman who died after making a deposit at her bank's ATM machine. According to the e-mail message, police found cyanide in her body and traced the poison to the glue in the envelope. Someone had been putting cyanide-laced envelopes in machines across the city, the e-mail message explained, and banks were powerless to stop it. The e-mail concluded by advising people to spit at bank envelopes instead of licking them. The story was a hoax, of course. And so was another e-mail message describing a Dallas woman who sat on an HIV- infected needle left in a movie theater seat. Similar occurrences are being reported across the country, the message claimed, citing the Centers for Disease Control. Both hoaxes sounded plausible enough to prompt millions of concerned Americans to forward the messages to friends and relatives all across the world. Thanks to e-mail,rumors, even absurd ones like these, now spread almost instantaneously. How could so many people be so gullible? David Emery, an expert in so-called "urban legends," says that stories are "an expression of how many people feel: generally mistrustful; wary of their fellow human beings, particularly strangers." Many of these stories suggest that we are in dire danger when undertaking "the most ordinary of daily activities," such as going to the bank or to a movie. Yet, Emery's explanation leaves out the role played by the Internet itself in the spread of urban legends today: the creation of ever-greater isolation. The explosion of the World Wide Web and so-called e-commerce has created a world where you can do almost everything without leaving your home. You can buy groceries or shop for a car without stepping outside your door. You can even buy a home and apply for a mortgage on-line. In fact, just about the only thing you cannot do on-line is move. In a culture where interaction with others is increasingly optional, is it any surprise that mistrust and suspicion are also increasing? How can we trust our neighbors if we don't even known them? No wonder so many people fall for bogus e-mail warnings that warn of hidden dangers lurking in the most innocent settings. The Bible makes it clear that God intended us to live our lives in community, surrounded by people with whom we have real, not virtual, relationships. We all need to make sure we and our kids are not spending our whole lives on-line. We need to take regular breaks from the computer, go outside, and talk with our neighbors. Christians need to take a stand against a fragmenting society and not be carried along unthinkingly by social trends. It's the only way to protect ourselves—not from killer envelopes but from the mistrust and suspicion that destroys a community.


Chuck Colson


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