Computer Crime Research Center

Resist Using Nick Berg as a Prop

Date: May 14, 2004
Source: Opinion Editorials
By: C Brackney

They didn't just kill him.

They posed him, filmed him, decapitated him and uploaded the footage knowing we'd all see it within twenty-four hours. They sawed off Nick Berg's head and held it in front of a camera. It wasn't just an execution, it was a statement. A man's severed head was used as a prop. Somehow that made it worse for me when, acting against my own better judgment, I decided to watch the unedited video online.

The tension as the five men stood behind Berg was difficult to bear, knowing how horribly the vignette would end. Seeing him thrown down and brutalized was even more difficult. The plaintive screams, the pool of blood, the sawing across his neck and the ongoing chanting in the background revulsed me in a way I cannot explain. The one thing that stays with me the most, however, was seeing his lifeless head held in front of the camera and then to see it placed, I believe, on his corpse as the camera continued to roll. There was something unspeakably grotesque and unfathomably sad about his head being used to make a political argument.

Nick Berg's mutiliation and death continues to be used to make points, and that's what distresses me this morning. We are better than the murderous terrorists who executed the decapitation and I would never argue otherwise. But when it comes to holding that severed head in front of the camera, leaders and pundits are nearly as guilty as those who killed Nick Berg.

Yesterday I feared Nick Berg's murder would be trotted out as a reason to back the war on terror. I feared it would be used by others as a reason to reject the war. I worried it would be used to downplay the sadistic actions of Lynndie England and the other guards at Abu Ghraib and to attack those who sought to uncover that scandal. I worried Berg's murder would be held up as an example of what happens when you abuse prisoners. I thought we'd see a prizeless contest develop among analysts, pundits and politicians to see who could offer the most sincere condolences combined with most strongly expressed anger at the perpetrators of the killing.

I saw a group of incredibly evil men use a severed head in hopes of pushing their agenda. Now I see Americans doing the same thing. This morning I have read editorials and statements explaining that Nick Berg's legacy will be to strengthen our resolve for the war on terror--his demise reminds us of why we must fight. I have read others who tell me Nick Berg's death is symbolic of all the reasons the war on terror is doomed and how our currently policy merely encourages needless bloodshed. Articles claim Berg's killing shows us how little merit there is in attacks on U.S. treatment of prisoners. I've read more than one person explaining that the errors we made in Abu Ghraib killed Nick Berg and will kill others. Letters of condolence, jammed pack with rhetoric carefully designed to push agendas proliferates.

It's not surprising. News events create opportunities to promote agendas. The sum of those events are the evidence from which arguments regarding policy are constructed. Exploitation of particular singular incidents as jumping off points for larger generalizations, although guaranteed to maximize exposure and attention, often find themselves shakily supported.

It's surely hard to resist the urge to seize upon the "big story" when one wants to advance their position. I know everyone with an opinion wants to take Nick Berg's death and explain how it fits their worldview and how it makes the truth of their point clear. We are captivated by the cruelty, gore, and sadness. The audience is willing to hear how Nick Berg's murder proves one side right and another wrong. The opportunity to make political gain through his murder is there.

Taking advantage of that opportunity, however, is just what I do not need. I do not think it what others need, either. I'm not interested in seeing Nick Berg's head held up as a reason to stop the war, escalate the war, or anything else. When I watched that video, I was overcome by a profound sadness and feeling of helplessness. We have a war in Iraq that's contentious. We have prisoner scandals, rebel fighting, dead contractors, executions, occupation strategies, rebuilding problems, progress, setbacks, and more. It is all part of a larger puzzle that includes the World Trade Center, the U.S.S. Cole, the Munich Olympics, Quadaffi, culture wars, religious history and so many other things that trying to ingest it all seems almost impossible. Nick Berg's bloody decapitation does not clarify or crystallize the issues easily. To claim it does is to be the worst kind of exploiter. The kind of exploiter who waves a lifeless head in front of a camcorder.

If you are part of the print media, radio, television or the internet, I ask you not to use Nick Berg's death as "proof" for the correctness of your position. If you are a politician, aide, analyst or spokesperson, I ask you to forget we are in the middle of an election year and to remember that one is not required to reduce every event to a partisan talking point.

Nick Berg is dead. I saw them kill him on the internet. That gruesome scene didn't clarify, it didn't vindicate a position. It showed a murder and made me think about things like freedom, evil and war in a very human way. Perhaps it's possible to know about what happened, to see what happened, to let it have its profound personal impact and to move to looking for ways to create a world in which we will not have to see more heads dangled in front of cameras--literally or figuratively.

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2004-05-17 09:58:51 - Mere words escape me... Bry
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