The possibly purloined papers

''I have received personal information, from a very high quarter, that a certain document . . . has been purloined.'' The speaker is a Parisian detective in Edgar Allan Poe's short story ''The Purloined Letter.'' But he sure sounds like one of the championship squirmers, trying to keep his proper distance from the hot-potato briefing papers that found their own way - somehow - from the Carter files to the Reagan files during the 1980 campaign.

Not since the Hitler diaries has there been such excitement about what papers got where, in the warm little hands of whom.

William J. Casey, then Reagan campaign manager, now director of the CIA, has summed up for the defense by remarking that if - the man said ''if''! - any mole in the Carter camp had brought him the purloined papers before the television debate, his response would have been: ''I wouldn't touch it with a 10-foot pole.''

The 1980 campaign, Mr. Casey insisted, was an ''honorable campaign.'' Besides , he added in a burst of counterintelligence candor, he would have suspected a ''setup.''

Meanwhile, the Democrats are saying that they would cover their eyes and send the goods back if any scoundrel dared to lay a purloined document on their desk.

What melodrama could not be scribbled about these covert doings? A roman a clef or two will doubtless make a quick appearance. But the point we would like to dwell upon here is suggested by the Casey word: ''touch.''

Do we bystanders realize that we may be dealing with the last of the purloined papers in a line going back to the ''Pentagon Papers'' of Daniel Ellsberg and the ''Pumpkin Papers'' of Whittaker Chambers and beyond? The fact is, from now on, pretty much any documents will be electronic, and one will not touch them, with or without a 10-foot pole. One will sort of abstract them from one computer to another - those little squiggly dots on a green screen.

For old time's sake, a printout might be purloined. But that wouldn't be necessary. Such a gratuitous gesture is required only by the obsolete folks who have to touch something in order to believe it has happened.

The quaint old-fashioned transport of paper from one filing cabinet to another belongs to a passing era. Verbs like ''touch'' no longer apply. Questions such as ''How did you get your hands on these documents?'' soon will become pure metaphor. When it comes to documents, nobody will get their hands on anything. The already archaic word ''manuscript'' - something written by hand - will grow ever more figurative.

How vivid the language of purloined papers seems as we look back! Richard V. Allen, formerly a national security adviser in the Reagan administration, declared the briefing papers were ''thrown over the transom.'' One can almost hear the thunk! David Stockman used the palpable verb ''pilfer,'' deriving from the word ''pelf'' for a sheep's skin.

What does it mean that so much of life is literally getting out ot touch - turning into an image of an image, a copy of a copy?

Something happens when a tourist converts a scene into a photograph so ingeniously that he studies the photograph instead of the scene.

Something happens when a recording is so faithful that the manufacturer challenges us to tell which high note is breaking the glass - the taped voice or the live voice . . . with the proof delivered, of course, by means of videotape.

In this world of the pseudo-actual, are we becoming confused, like the children who see the nightly-news war in Central America as one more bang-bang script, while the soldiers who fall are perceived as just another cast of actors , destined to get up again during the commercial?

Does a certain moral vagueness go with this other vagueness so that a thief who could never put on a ski mask and pull a gun and fill a canvas bag with somebody else's cash can punch into a computer and play with dancing figures on a screen and feel that he has not actually ''committed a crime'' by moving the symbols of the symbols of money from one account to another?

We take it as a warning sign that, as less and less is etched in stone, the phrase ''etched in stone'' has become popular - with ''not'' in front of it.

Nobody should have to touch, to handle, to grasp in order to establish a presence that must be accounted for. Still, we're not sorry that Carter's purloined papers are the stuff on which fingerprints get left.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.