Nick Berg and Abu Ghraib

Posted: May 13, 2004 12:00 AM

For a good example of what's wrong with liberal journalism, see the top front page headline on yesterday (Wednesday) morning's USA Today: "Brutality intensifies in Iraq. " From that headline two stories descended, one on the murder of Nick Berg and the other on the day's Abu Ghraib hearings.

 Hmmm ... are sexual humiliation and beheading morally equivalent? Following a week-long frenzy of coverage, was the Abu Ghraib story journalistically equivalent to the new story of Nick Berg's horrific death? A headline like, "Muslim extremists behead an American," would have been much better in conveying the news of the day than "Brutality intensifies in Iraq."

 USA Today's generic headline assigned no responsibility and was not even accurate. The Abu Ghraib story concerned continuing testimony about the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners, but the "brutality" itself was not increasing and had probably ceased upon full exposure. Other newspapers had similar headlines expressing shock that war is hell. I'd prefer Dante-like surveys of the underworld's levels.

 Yes, Iraqi prisoners should not have been subject to cruel and unusual punishments, but perspective is important. The photo of an Iraqi man with a leash around his neck showed shameful perversity, but at least the man still had a neck. The United States during the initial phase of the Iraq War used "smart bombs" in an attempt to minimize civilian casualties: compare that to Islamic fascists sawing off Nick Berg's head.

 Liberalism these days is a mix of multiculturalism and belief in man's perfectibility, and both aspects of the faith lead reporters astray. War is an evil, but cultures that respect the Bible try to reduce the evil within that evil by following commands from Mount Sinai and conventions from Geneva. Those with biblical understanding also know that we often mess up. Add wartime pressures to man's sinfulness, and some bad incidents should be no surprise.

 Journalists should not be surprised about the mess-ups: Our questions should concern how often and how badly. Since some of the Abu Ghraib prison guards will say, honestly or maliciously, that they were just following orders, we do need to know more about what exactly their orders were. We need to know whether the prisoners were run-of-the-mill captives or vicious terrorists caught in the act of killing others or making bombs that would murder civilians.

 Instead of asking deeper questions, many journalists will stay at the surface and keep the Abu Ghraib story bubbling because of its ugly reality, because it reduces both a key GOP strength (pride in our soldiers) and a key Democratic weakness (John Kerry's Vietnam-era maligning of our soldiers), and because hearings are easy to cover. But the rest of us, even as we ask authorities to punish those guilty of unnatural acts and natural cover-ups, should demand more.

 We should debate the contention of some international organizations that no prisoners should be subjected to sleep deprivation and solitary confinement. I'd suggest that if those practices can ferret out from terrorists information that could save lives, guards should receive a flashing yellow light. But we won't have that debate if reporters lump together tough information-gathering practices and forced participation in pornography.

 We also need to debate the larger questions: Is Iraq better or worse off than it was under Saddam Hussein? Because of the war, are residents of New York and Washington more or less likely to be victims of terrorist attacks? We should look straight-on at Abu Ghraib, photos and all, without seeing it as the tip of an iceberg that may not exist, or as an opportunity to create a political earthquake. We should also steel ourselves to look at the Nick Berg snuff video, and then not lose track of those who have now added his name to a long list of terrorism's victims.