A murder in wartime

May 13, 2004

THE BEHEADING of Nicholas Berg, and the anticipatory videotape image of five captors standing over him, provoke within us a deep and nearly instinctual response.

This is so ugly and wrong we want to twist away from it.

First the Abu Ghraib prison photos, now this - not that they are in any way equivalent, because they are not. They are each in their own world of darkness. They are connected, yes, but neither outrage justifies or mitigates or balances the other. Together, they are almost too much to grasp.

There can be no adequate response to the murder of Mr. Berg. The destruction of a village? The deaths of his kidnappers? Their incarceration - perhaps their humiliation? Nothing can bring the good-hearted Pennsylvanian back to life, or erase the image taken during his final hours. Some part of each of us longs for vengeance, yet blind retaliation merely prolongs, or elaborates, the violence committed against him.

This is the insidious nature of the fanatical insurgent. Violence by either side serves his purpose. Those who killed Mr. Berg were baiting the American military, just as did those who killed the four contractors in Fallujah in March: The more the army lashes out, the more enemies it will make. The more enemies it makes, the more glorious the insurgents' battle.

Two days ago, this page compared Iraq to Chechnya. The Chechens, too, went through a period when they made videotapes of themselves decapitating Russian hostages, and then sent the tapes to Russian television stations. The response - the response they wanted - was outrage among the Russian people, a rising chorus in support of a renewed war in the Caucasus; that was five years ago, and Russia has been stuck there ever since.

"You love life," both Chechen and Iraqi insurgents say, "but we love death more."

How do you fight such people? How do you fight people who mock you for your weakness and revel in your aggression?

Iraq is not the scene of total war. Total war would be easier, or at least more straightforward - kill or be killed.

In Iraq, the occupation forces must sift friend from foe, recruit new friends and hold on to the old ones, all while trying to establish, futile though the effort must be, a monopoly on violence. This is war under restraint, but all war in the end is about death and dismemberment. There's nothing pretty or inspiring about it - and on that score, perhaps, the prison humiliations and the murder of Mr. Berg do have something in common.

Our experience of this war comes through a pitiless lens. The innermost walls are pierced, the keenest moments of degradation half a world away are carried to our eyes. And what we make of them tells us more about ourselves than it does about our enemies.

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