There are times when, no matter what else may be in the news, one can only write about one story. This week, it's the murder of Nicholas Berg, the young American businessman kidnapped in Iraq and decapitated by his Al Qaeda captors, a video of his final moments put up on the Internet by his killers as a trophy. Or maybe it's the wrong story to write about, because when confronted with such horror, words fail.
Stories of Western hostages in Iraq have a personal dimension for me. A friend of mine, a special education teacher, is currently in Iraq helping to set up the country's first-ever educational program for children with mental disabilities. She is in the Kurdish part of Northern Iraq, where things are supposed to be reasonably safe; but who knows how safe that is? About 12 hours after the news of Nicholas Berg's murder, I chatted with my friend online. Neither of us mentioned the murder. I wasn't sure whether she knew about it. I wasn't sure I wanted to find out.
What, then, is there to say? There is the obvious point—the first thing that came to my mind, and no doubt to many others', once the initial shock had worn off—that the terrorists are not only evil but stupid. The day before Al Qaeda's new snuff film hit the airwaves, the world's attention was on the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandals. The images on everyone's mind were those of US soldiers sadistically mistreating Iraqi detainees. The Americans were looking like the bad guys. At home, staunch supporters of the war in Iraq were wavering.
And then, as Howard Kurtz memorably put it in The Washington Post, "the murderers changed the subject."
One easy—too easy—response to the murder of Nicholas Berg is to say that there's been too much hand-wringing over the prison abuse scandal: At least no one in Abu Ghraib had his head slowly hacked off with a machete and held up before a camera. And besides, some are saying, Look what we're up against: When we're fighting the kind of animals who would do that, we can't be too squeamish about the means.
Such a reaction is an understandable first response born of shock and rage. But it should not be a guide to policy.
The people who murdered Berg are monsters (just like the people who murdered Daniel Pearl two years ago). But they are not the same people who were being brutalized in Abu Ghraib. Some of those prisoners may have been terrorists; some may have been small-time troublemakers; some may have been innocent of any wrongdoing and jailed by mistake. To equate them all with the Al Qaeda butchers makes no more sense than to equate all Americans in Iraq with the Abu Ghraib abusers.
And yes, it's quite true that the humiliation, mistreatment, and in some cases outright torture of prisoners in Abu Ghraib did not sink to the level of hacking off heads. That's a reason to pat ourselves on the back? If you find out that a close relative of yours is a rapist, the fact that he's not Jack the Ripper is not exactly cause to feel much better.
There's another angle to this story: the issue of media coverage. Some prowar commentators such as the New Republic's Andrew Sullivan argue that the media that publicized the Abu Ghraib abuse photos are guilty of a double standard if they don't give equal exposure to stills from the Nicholas Berg murder video. Again, the impulse is understandable. But do we want to push the envelope further and further by airing more extreme images of violence? So far, the worst of the abuse photos are not being released either.
Others, such as National Review's Jonah Goldberg, are saying that the prison abuse photos should have been suppressed because airing them inflamed passions in the Muslim world and probably got Berg killed. But even if the link between Berg's murder and the Abu Ghraib scandal is real, it does not follow that nixing the photos would have saved lives. In the modern world, images cannot be suppressed for very long. If the American media had run the abuse story but refused to carry the pictures, how long would it be before those photos found their way to Al Jazeera—or Al Qaeda? Moreover, such a scenario would take away one claim Americans can proudly make right now: that we are open about our mistakes.