The Age of Comparative Atrocity

American shame; Islamist snuff movies


It's a tough call whether Abu Musab al-Zarqawi—the Jordanian "militant" who is reportedly responsible for the videotaped butchery of Nicholas Berg—is more stupid than he is brutal, or whether he is a bigger monster than he is a fool. Zarqawi's own nauseating videotape makes the case for his indescribable brutality. The argument that he is Islamism's biggest lunatic yet—no small claim—is similarly straightforward: He has inaugurated an otherwise inconceivable display of comparative atrocity that could deliver his enemy from its own demoralization.

After all, Americans have been sufficiently shamed, dishonored, and demoralized by the repulsive images of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib that even many prominent war supporters have been reconsidering the effort. Dispirited analysts at the conservative National Review Online have been looking for an exit from the occupation; blogger Andrew Sullivan has asked himself if, knowing in advance how the occupation would proceed, he would have supported the war to begin with. New York Times columnist David Brooks has concluded that the United States misconceived the effect of its own power, and has pronounced the occupation an intellectual failure, even if it ultimately succeeds in establishing a liberal Iraq.

What does Zarqawi do? In "retaliation" for the Abu Ghraib imagery, he stages a singularly nauseating "execution" of a private American citizen who has been wandering around Iraq. The probable effect is to offer many Americans an exit from their own moral horror.

Mind you, Zarqawi's ghouls in this video don't merely "behead" Berg, as most accounts indicate. "Beheading" suggests a quick severing and a quick death. What Zarqawi and his friends do is butcher Berg—there's no other word for it. They don't use a sword or an axe; they use a knife. You can hear Nicholas Berg screaming as Zarqawi's gang hacks at his neck and then pulls at his head until it comes off his body. They then hold his bleeding head in front of the camera. The tape is appalling not only for its utter bloodthirstiness, but also for the total absence of simple human empathy. Elemental empathy—for example, an unwillingness to rip a victim's head from his body—is a primary measure of civilization. (The shame Americans felt at the Abu Ghraib images is, after all, rooted in such empathy.) Even in the dehumanizing context of warfare, which strains the empathy of all its participants, this is savagery.

But if this is a moment of comparative atrocity, the issue becomes whether the Zarqawi horror is capable of having any effect on the Abu Ghraib images. The probable answer is that while the murder tape obviously doesn't make pictures of prisoner abuse any less disgusting or shameful, it does offer many of those who feel disgust and shame a different context in which to perceive those images.

The Abu Ghraib pictures reveal American soldiers humiliating their prisoners in a sadistic manner (in some images, the Americans are actually smirking). It's a painful sight because it is cruel on its own terms (we don't even know if the terrorized individual prisoners are actually guilty of anything), and because we regard such sadism as unworthy of our image of ourselves.

Indeed, the pictures are sufficiently difficult that American newspaper editors are increasingly unsure how to play the images that continue to appear. Perhaps sensing a rise of "shame fatigue," some editors have been moving newer images to inside pages. As Washington Post editor Leonard Downie, Jr. put it, "[W]e decided we had published so many shocking photos that it was fine to publish inside rather than on the front page."

By contrast, Zarqawi intentionally tapes and distributes his bloody atrocity; the literal slaughter of an innocent is offered as an example of his righteousness. "Unworthiness" simply never enters the calculation; that it is inhuman is its point. Shameless brutality of this degree has the power to transform the shame of Zarqawi's enemies (those who seek such transformation). Zarqawi has reminded his enemies that, unlike him, they are capable of shame.

One rarely encounters an enemy willing to dehumanize himself this way. It's not unknown: Genghis Khan, sweeping out of Mongolia in the 13th century, sent out an advance phalanx of rumormongers to spread tales of massacre and cruelty, in order to encourage the cities in his path to surrender the more quickly. But that strategy was based on the Mongols' strength, and the relative weakness of the cities that various waves of Mongol armies were intent on sacking, (Baghdad was ultimately among them).

That's hardly the situation in which Zarqawi and his allies find themselves. If the U.S. has a military weakness, it's the one that Vietnam's Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap identified: Wars can be won on the American home front. But you try to win such a war by demoralizing the populace, not by demonstrating your own butchery. Revealing yourself as a butcher only encourages your enemies to find you and kill you.

That's the whole point of atrocity images and stories, both true and false, from Trajan's Column in Rome to the notorious false stories spread during World War I to the phony anti-Iraq baby-incubator testimony of the first Gulf War: to dehumanize the foe. That's the business of the Pan-Arab press: delegitimizing the American effort in Iraq by portraying it in terms of atrocity. In the case of an Al Jazeera, it has been to display civilian corpses; in the case of some Pan-Arab newspapers, it has been to augment genuine pictures of prisoner abuse with stills from pornographic films, and to claim that such stills are also from Abu Ghraib.

That sort of thing is recognizable propaganda in a classic mode. Zarqawi's righteous snuff movie is something different: an act of lunacy, a gift to his enemies, and, one hopes, an unwitting suicide note.