Topic: Government & Politics

The Endless Victimization of Nick Berg
(5/17/2004)

Nick Berg died a lonely, terrifying, and painful death at the hands of hate-filled fanatics who regard human lives as mere props in a political drama. The utter wrongness of his murder does not require either explanation or exposition here or anywhere else. Yet many who claim to be outraged by Berg's death are choosing to use him as a prop again, and like his killers, doing so to advance their political agenda.

Conservative pundit Sean Hannity is far from the only talk-show host to put the Al Qaeda-made video of Berg's beheading on his website, but he is among the most prominent. His stated goal: to remind Americans the true nature of who we are fighting in Iraq, and to put the abuse of Iraqis at the Abu Ghraib prison "in perspective." What Hannity has done is profoundly unethical, and not because the footage is excessively violent. It is unethical because Nick Berg's death is not Hannity's to exploit for his own dubious ends. It is unethical because the continued debasement of Nick Berg's privacy and dignity cannot be justified as leading to any greater good. And it is unethical because the point Hannity is trying to make is itself devoid of any ethical legitimacy.

To begin with, Hannity's stated premise is flawed, and arguably moronic. When any of us hear that a human being was beheaded, we comprehend the nature and the horror of the act. We know it is barbaric; indeed, we associate the act with ancient times and long-dead despots. Hannity's on air statements would indicate that he thinks that without the most graphic visual evidence, the average American somehow could not grasp what it meant when the newscasts announced that an American was beheaded on tape by Muslim extremists. If he truly believes that, he is a dolt who regards his countrymen as fellow dolts. It is far more likely, however, that Hannity's goal is emotional, not intellectual. He wants those who see the tape to be angry, sickened, and aroused. He wants to create a desire for revenge. But revenge is not remotely an ethically justifiable goal, nor is it one of the legitimate reasons for America's presence in Iraq. Revenge, as used by Hannity and others (including, undoubtedly, some in the Bush administration) is a device to manipulate the public to support more complex objectives. This is one reason why judges sometimes withhold graphic photos from the jury in murder trials: they have the effect of replacing reason with emotion.

But the real problem with Hannity's action is that it harms the very victim he purports to avenge. There are some moments in human lives that are sacred and private, and death is one. Those who taped Berg's awful demise didn't do so to preserve his dignity; they intended to rob him of it, and succeeded. He is thrown to the ground, screaming pitifully, and after his head is hacked off, it is waved before the camera. A living man is reduced to ghoulish trophy, and a tape has been made to glorify and memorialize the moment. By encouraging and facilitating the viewing of that tape by the largest number of people possible, Hannity and his compatriots are encouraging the dehumanization of Nick Berg and his permanent humiliation. The fact that this is done to advance a different political agenda in no way mitigates the wrongness of the conduct.

Hannity would argue that while the exhibiting of the snuff tape clearly fails a reciprocity ethics test (Would Shawn want his most helpless, terrifying, and degrading moments recorded and shown to strangers after his death?), it is justified in utilitarian terms. The excessive media focus on the war crimes of a "handful of American soldiers" has harmed the nation's efforts against terror, and this tape is manna from heaven, indisputable evidence of the difference between "us and them." This is a case, Hannity would assert, of the ends justifying the means.

No. First of all, the proof is unnecessary. Planes flying into buildings and killing thousands were sufficient and more compelling evidence. Americans, after all, have occasionally committed murders as barbaric as Berg's right here at home: the dragging death of James Byrd comes to mind. Secondly, the comparison that Hannity wants to make is a false one. Americans should not regard humiliating and illegal abuse of prisoners by our military representatives as somehow more tolerable because Al Qaeda hacks off heads. Finally, Hannity's argument for showing the tape runs exactly counter to his fevered efforts to discount the impact of the Abu Ghraib photos. "The acts of seven soldiers shouldn't be used to stain the reputations of the brave Americans who are serving with bravery and distinction in Iraq," he says. Yet he insists that the recorded act of a similar number of Muslim radicals shows the world "who we are fighting." Now, as it happens, I think he is right: I think the Berg tape does accurately portray the character of America's terrorist enemies, and I know that the Abu Ghraib photos grotesquely distort the image of America. But none of this is proven by the photos or the tape. The tape is indisputable evidence of nothing, and what Hannity claims that it "proves" we already know to be true. Clearly, it does not justify Hannity's endless victimization of Nick Berg.

Others have chosen to debase Berg's death in more despicable ways. On Portland Oregon radio station KNRK, "shock jocks" Marconi, Tiny and sidekick Nickie J. played the audio of Berg's murder and mocked his screams. For them, Nick Berg's death was just a prop for a cheap joke, like a rubber chicken or plastic poop. Berg's father, incredibly, decided to use the media attention focused on him as a result of his son's murder to plug his support for the radical anti-war group ANSWER and to deliver a screed against Bush and the Patriot Act. He used his son's murder as a soap box.

Stop. Terrorists killed Berg for their goals, and we properly condemn then for it. But we should also condemn those who exploit Berg's death for their own purposes, whether we support those purposes or not. He was a young man whose life was too short and whose death was too horrible. The decent, humane, ethical and civilized conduct now is to respect his dignity and privacy, let him rest in peace, and let his murder rest, unwatched but remembered, in infamy.

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