Where the outrage is over Nicholas Berg’s death

Lexicon | Politics
Many conservative commentators have asked where the outrage is surrounding Nicholas Berg’s death. The Boston Herald editorializing on Al Gore’s MoveOn speech, began so: "He never mentioned Nicholas Berg. Or Daniel Pearl." A reader of my Civilities piece on Abu Ghraib demanded, in effect, equal outrage for Berg.


Let’s ignore for a second which side of the outrage is voiced by "liberals" and which by "conservatives" (since you can’t really tell by looking at the Common Political Grid). Instead, recall the Serenity Prayer, which is well known for having been adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous in 1942 as their mantra: "Grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, courage to change the things we can, and wisdom to know the difference."

There are certain things we cannot change: the weather, suicide bombings, the problem of evil. We can get outraged about these, only to the point where we actually do something about them.

We Americans have been outraged about Abu Ghraib precisely because we had an indirect hand in it. The torture was carried out by our soldiers– us. The torture was sanctioned, according to Seymour Hersh’s reporting, as a direct result of an policy ordered by the Secretary of Defense; the secretary was prosecuting a war which had been approved by the Congress, whom we elected; the war was initiated by a President, who if we didn’t elect, was installed as a result of the Supreme Court and the Electoral College, institutions which we go along with with. Thus our outrage is directed at uncovering the truth. .

When we get outraged about crimes, what we do is solve them. Daniel Pearl’s death has not been forgotten, thanks in part to Bernard-Henri Lévy’s book last year, Who Killed Daniel Pearl?. Lévy, regarded as France’s leading philosopher, is no amateur here; he was in Pakistan thirty years before as a war correspodent. Lévy’s book is dedicated towards honoring Pearl’s memory. He also wanted to understand how the accused killer, Omar Sheikh, the son of Pakistani immigrants to England, was no ordinary thug. Through this, Lévy began to doubt the common theory that Pearl was killed simply because he was an American and a Jew. Instead, Lévy introduces some stunning hypotheses: that murder was carried out by representatives of all the major Pakistani jihadist/crime syndicates; that Sheikh, was likely an agent of the ISI, the Pakistani Secret Service, with links to Al Queda; that Pearl was likely killed once his kidnappers realized how much he knew; that the highly sensitive information which Pearl had uncovered may well have been Sheikh’s role in financing 9/11, as well as evidence of Pakistan transferring nuclear secrets to Al Queda. Far-fetched? One of the demands of the kidnappers had been the release of US F-16’s to Pakistan– the same thing that President Pervez Musharraf was in Washington during that same time asking for. Musharraf, the day after the murder, exclaimed that Pearl had been "over intrusive",

There was no equivalent rationalization of Berg’s murder; it was roundly condemned in the Islaminc world. It has some parallels to Pearl’s, beyond that of being the murder of an American Jew. In both cases, there was a videotaped beheading, and viewings of both suggest to experts that they were staged after the victim was already dead. That is a mere technicality of the Pearl execution, but only the start of the mystery surrounding Berg’s. The killer identifies himself on the tape as Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, a wanted terrorist (who, incidentally, the Bush administration declined to target before the war). But if he identified himself, why was he wearing a mask? Al-Zarqawi was said to have been killed by bombing in the Iraq war; it is believed that he has a prosthetic leg, unlike the speaker in the video. It is certainly likely that the sound was dubbed in later. But by whom, and why? Many other questions emerge, about the timing of the video, the location, the appearance of Berg, the delivery of the message to the media– you can see them posted kuro5hin’s 50 Fishy Circumstances, Contradictory Claims, and Videotape Anomalies.

Note that there is no alternative theory yet, conspiracy or otherwise; these are just questions which remain open. The Times in a profile of Nicholas Berg, reflected: "the many unexplained details of Mr. Berg’s final days, combined with the uncommon details of his unconventional life, have also prompted furious speculation on the Internet and talk radio about Mr. Berg himself." The simplest theory that can be put forth is that the audio portion– evoking the explicit retaliation for the Abu Ghraib torture– was added to an existing videotaped killing. This could be easy to prove: al-Zarqawi speaks. Or somebody can independently confirm that his voice matches.

To paraphrase the motto of X-Files TV show, the outrage is out there. The truth may yet be revealed. Regardless of what the U.S. or Iraqi investigations may find, it may take a writer-philosopher like Bernard-Henri Lévy to do the research. Those who are outraged– conservative or liberal, hawk or dove– should have the courage to demand the truth here as well.


June 30th update: The beheading of Kim Sung Il in Iraq last week (as well Paul Johnson Jr. in Saudi Arabia) showed similar patterns to Berg’s death, which reduces the mystery somewhat. The fact that Kim’s death was not aired by Al-Jazeera suggests that it was more gruesome– as experts expected an actual killing would. Nothing new has been learned about al-Zarqawi; none of Kim’s killer’s claimed to be him, even though they identified with him. Eric Umansky, a Slate contributor, has floated the idea that al-Zarqawi is a bit of a "Keyser Soze" figure (the shadowy crimelord of 1995’s The Usual Suspects, whose very name inspired fear).


June 9th, 2006 update: It’s now been established that Zarqawi was alive two years ago– as he’s dead now. As for the rest of the supposed loose ends I thought demanded attention, I have not spent any more time on them.