WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Americans are so good at self-flagellation, even a heinous act by others may be insufficient to remind us that we're not so bad after all. For three weeks now, the media has bludgeoned the Bush administration, the secretary of defense and the U.S. military for the mistreatment of detainees in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison.
Now we have the horrific, videotaped murder of American civilian, 26-year-old Nick Berg. The perpetrators of this ghastly act proudly shout "Allahu Akbar," over the screams of the young man as they hack through the sinews of his neck and then proudly display his severed head for the camera.
The tape concludes with a prepared statement by one of the executioners claiming that "the dignity of the Muslim men and women in Abu Ghraib and others is not redeemed except by blood and souls."
As shocking as this video is -- and it is truly revolting in a way that churns your gut -- it is nothing new. Radical Islamic jihadists have been perpetrating this kind of horror against Americans for more than 20 years. And, as if to substantiate the Jihadist's claims that it's not their fault, the "blame America first" crowd in the U.S. media looks for ways to point out how we really deserve what we're getting. Equally consistent, the Arab press parrots ours in ways that incite more violence, while "leaders" in Islamic states remain mute -- or worse, condone -- the atrocities.
On March 16, 1984, CIA Station Chief William Buckley was abducted and then tortured to death in a Beirut dungeon. I carried the agonizing photographs and tape recordings of his brutal beatings back to CIA Director William J. Casey. No Islamic leaders condemned the kidnapping and murder. The U.S. media rationalized his treatment as the consequence of being a CIA employee.
On May 28, 1985, David Jacobsen, the administrator of the American University Hospital in Beirut, where most of the people treated were Muslims, was taken hostage on his way to work. No Islamic leaders denounced the perpetrators. After Jacobsen's release in November 1986, his 18 months of torture were ignored by a U.S. media more intent on castigating the Reagan administration for an "arms for hostages deal" than in punishing his captors. The same situation applied for all the other Beirut hostages.
On Feb. 17, 1988, Marine Col. William Higgins was kidnapped and subsequently murdered in Lebanon. Though the United Nations filed a complaint that one of its observers had been "taken," Islamic leaders were again unheard. When Higgins' remains were finally recovered in 1991, the silence of the U.S. media was deafening.
By Feb. 21, 2002, when Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was butchered in Pakistan, the jihadists had moved to a new level. Photographs and audiotapes were deemed inadequate to depict the horror they intended to show us -- and their adherents. Daniel Pearl's murderers held him for a week -- while they plotted his brutal murder -- in front of a video camera. And while Islamic leaders were once again mute, this time the U.S. media responded to the horror. Danny Pearl was, after all, one of their own. The European press seized on this aspect of the atrocity and decried the heinous act as "an attack on freedom of the press." That Daniel Pearl was a Jewish American was hardly mentioned.
On March 31 this year, just prior to my third trip to Iraq, four American civilians, escorting a shipment of humanitarian food and medicine, were ambushed, shot, mutilated and dragged through the streets of Fallujah, before their bodies were burned and hung from a bridge over the Euphrates.
When I arrived in the city days later, I was informed that the perpetrators had taken pains to notify members of the Arab press prior to the grisly event. The U.S. media pointed out that the security contractors should have known better than to drive through a city where the United States was so highly resented. No Islamic leader rose to condemn the atrocity.
Days later, on April 15, jihadists in Iraq released the videotaped murder of Fabrizio Quattrocchi, a 36-year-old Italian. Though the press praised the courage of the young security guard facing certain death by proclaiming, "Now I'm going to show you how an Italian dies," members of the Euro-media immediately called for the withdrawal of "foreign troops from Iraq" and the resignation of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. It was a one- or two-day story in the U.S. media. From Ramadi, Iraq, I looked in vain for any Islamic leader who would rise to denounce the assassins or condemn the killing.
I was in Fallujah when the story broke about the abuses at Abu Ghraib. The soldiers and Marines I was with agreed that while the actions described were inexcusable, this was "old news" because it was about activity that had occurred months before. Since only a small handful of people were involved, we all naively assumed that this would be a one- or two-day story. The events, and those engaged in them, had all been investigated. Those responsible had been -- or were in the process of -- being punished or prosecuted. There was no cover-up. The military had already begun to rectify the command and organizational deficiencies that led to the abuses.
We were wrong. We sadly underestimated the effect of such a story in a political year.
Because of the twisted, sado-sexual nature of the photographs taken at Abu Ghraib, the prison abuse story is deemed to be more "newsworthy" than a long litany of jihadist atrocities. The silence of the sheiks, mullahs and imams isn't worthy of newsprint. No broadcast minutes will be wasted on commentaries complaining about the lack of opprobrium from "moderate" Islamic leaders. The vivid horror of Nick Berg's bloody severed head is insufficient to usurp the "prison abuse" story from the headlines.
The U.S. media smell blood -- not of murdered Americans -- but of Donald Rumsfeld. Never underestimate our penchant for self-flagellation.