Two Wrongs

Terry Eastland | The Weekly Standard | Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Two Wrongs

LET'S STIPULATE that the abuses of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad were as serious as the pictures suggest. But America now has images of a different kind to absorb.

In a video posted on the website of Muntada Al-Ansar, a militant group with links to al Qaeda, you see a young man sitting on the floor. He is wearing what appears to be an orange jumpsuit, something a prisoner might wear. Behind him stand five men clad in black who are wearing head scarves and black ski masks.

The young man is an American, as you learn when he reads this statement: "My name is Nick Berg, my father's name is Michael, my mother's name is Suzanne. I have a brother and sister, David and Sarah. I live in . . . Philadelphia."

The video then shows Berg sitting in a chair in front of his captors. One reads a statement in Arabic. He claims that they offered to swap Berg for several detainees at Abu Ghraib but that American officials declined. He urges revenge by Muslims for the abuses of Iraqi detainees.

"We tell you that the dignity of the Muslim men and women in Abu Ghraib and others is not redeemed except by blood and souls," says the man reading the statement. "You will not receive anything from us but coffin after coffin slaughtered in this way."

"This way" is about to be demonstrated: The men shout "Allahu akbar," which means "God is greatest," before pulling Berg to his side and putting a large knife to his neck. You see the hacking start. You hear screaming. You see the butchery completed as the five men hold up his bloody head, delighted with their deed.

This is, or should be, a moment for clarity in thinking about the war on terrorism. "There is," President Bush said last Wednesday, "no justification for the brutal execution of Nicholas Berg--no justification whatsoever." Of course there is no justification, for there can be no justification of murder.

The obvious apparently must be stated: Berg, who went to Iraq with the hope of winning a contract to help rebuild the country, had nothing to do with the abuses at Abu Ghraib. But even if he had, those who stood over him in the video had no jurisdiction.

INDEED, they had no public authority at all. They committed murder in a most savage way, showing no human feeling. And it made no difference that they believed they were doing the will of Allah. Plenty of Muslims will tell you that the killers of Berg were wrong in their understanding of Islam. Murder is murder and can't be excused by religion or ideology.

There are people who are failing to make necessary distinctions between the abuses at Abu Ghraib and the murder of Nicholas Berg. Responding to the latter, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said he condemned "all killings of innocent civilians in Iraq [just] as he condemns all abuse of prisoners." Both are to be condemned, yet not without observing that those who abused prisoners are subject to laws that respect human rights, while the murderers of Berg aspire to a world in which there are no such laws and no regard for human rights.

For more than two weeks, the nation has been shamed by the disgusting pictures from Abu Ghraib. But the barbaric killing of Nicholas Berg is a jolting reminder of the kind of people who declared war on the United States and who now, in Iraq, aim to prevent the development of a free society. Their intention, as President Bush pointed out, is "to shake our will" to complete the mission in Iraq. May the story of the gruesome murder of Nick Berg have the opposite effect.

Terry Eastland is publisher of The Weekly Standard. This column first appeared in the Dallas Morning News.

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