Michael Berg: A mourning father's misplaced outrage

Posted: May 20, 2004 12:00 AM

After the brutal beheading of Nicholas Berg, his father, Michael, promptly blamed the Bush administration for his son's death. "Nicholas Berg died for the sins of George Bush and (Defense Secretary) Donald Rumsfeld," said Michael Berg. "The al Qaeda people are probably just as bad as they are, but this administration did this."

In the gruesome videotaped execution, al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist Abu Musab al Zarqawi, flanked by four other terrorists, first read a statement in Arabic: "For the mothers and wives of American soldiers, we tell you that we offered the U.S. administration to exchange this hostage for some of the detainees in Abu Ghraib, and they refused."

Michael Berg implied that the Bush administration should have considered this prisoner-exchange offer, "I would like to ask (Bush) if it is true that al Qaeda offered to trade my son's life for the life of another person. And if that is true, well, I need that information . . . and I think the people of the United States of America need to know what the fate of their sons and daughters might be in the hands of the Bush administration." Does Michael Berg truly mean that, when an enemy in a war zone captures an unauthorized American civilian, policy requires that we trade him for captured terrorists?

Now one certainly wants to give wide latitude to the grieving Berg family. Imagine their pain and suffering. How does one cope with such a brutal, sub-human execution? In time, hopefully, Mr. Berg can achieve at least some perspective.

For, consider the following:

Nicholas Berg traveled alone, with neither a bodyguard nor a translator, carried a passport with an Israeli stamp on it, had a Jewish surname, spoke no Arabic, and the Iraqi police apparently picked Nick up after a night of drunken mischief.

People with whom Nick associated in Iraq describe him as oblivious to the danger around him. According to one account, Andy Duke, an American businessman staying at the same hotel as Nick Berg, said, "I would call him adventurous. He was very comfortable that the political risks here weren't any greater than the physical risks of being up on a tower." Another hotel resident, Chilean journalist Hugo Infante, said, "He was always concerned about his business. He never talked about the war. . . . He was never worried about his safety here, never worried about the bombings."

Governmental authorities and the Berg family give different accounts over some details of Berg's experience in Iraq. According to U.S. officials, the Iraqi police detained Nick for 13 days, then released him. The Berg family produced an e-mail in which a U.S. consular officer in Iraq wrote that Berg was "being detained by the U.S. military." The U.S. government denies ever taking Nick into custody, and calls the e-mail incorrect, due to the consular officer's misinformation from the Coalition Provisional Authority. Beyond this, the FBI says it warned Berg of the danger in Iraq, and even offered a charter jet to fly him out of the country. Berg's father confirmed the offer, but stated that his son rejected it because Nick thought it too dangerous to travel to Baghdad International Airport.

Michael Berg admits he supports neither the war nor Bush, but called his son a Bush supporter who agreed with the president's decision to invade Iraq. Nick sought to be part of Iraq's reconstruction and the wished-for evolution into a free and democratic state.

In directing his outrage, Michael Berg might wish to compare the Arab world's widespread coverage of the Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal versus the tepid response over Nick's execution. According to NBC News, "TV coverage (about Nicholas Berg's killing) was scant but sympathetic, with the two major Arab networks, Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, carrying the story as a brief news item for half a day."

A few Arab countries, like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, quickly condemned the beheading. So did the terrorist groups Hezbollah and Hamas.

"Hezbollah condemns this grisly act which has caused great harm to Islam and to Muslims by this group which falsely claims to belong to the religion of mercy, compassion and genuine human values," said the Hezbollah statement.

But the terrorist organization qualified its condemnation: "By its suspicious actions and links, this group belongs to the Pentagon school -- the school of killings, occupation, crime, torture and immoral practices as exposed by the big scandal in the occupation prisons." Similarly, a Hamas representative qualified its outrage: "I condemn this brutal act and sympathize with the family of the slain American man, who I consider the victim of the wrong U.S. policies in the region. U.S. President George Bush and (Berg's) killers are equally responsible." Right.

Nicholas Berg died because wanton, brutal Islamist killers fear a free, prosperous and democratic Iraq in their midst. Period.