Thursday, May 13, 2004

Thinking about Nick Berg

Art Jacobson posted a query at his blog, Ojo Caliente, about Salon posting the video of Nick Berg's beheading at the hands of jihadis, asking what the point of watching it would be. This was my response, edited slightly for style and clarity:

I watched the video. It wasn't until the last 45 seconds or so of a 5 minute segment that Berg is killed. That part was so gruesome that I was insulated from it by an aura of unreality. I think that I, and many others, have become conditioned by the special effects of Hollywood to accept even the most hideous violence with relative equanimity - after all, no one really gets hurt. So as I watched this film, even though I knew I should be vomiting with reaction to this brutality, it really didn't affect me viscerally, mostly because the video quality was so poor that only brief scenes of the execution are intelligible and there doesn't appear to be much blood.

I wondered mostly how Berg remained so calm before the execution. I feel pretty certain that Berg had no idea what was coming. Perhaps he was told that they were making a ransom tape. Or perhaps he was drugged.

I certainly don't think that anyone should make the decision for another adult as to what they can or cannot see. Even if the tape were of the rape of a child or a lynching, should the video have any possible public policy import, my vote would be to make it public, as well. People only fool themselves about the nature of world and the nature of our involvement in Iraq by avoiding harsh images. Knowing something has happened or exists is just not the same as seeing it. People are so visual in nature that images have inordinate power. The coffins coming back to Dover. The bodies of childen who have become 'collateral damage'. The injuries and death of our soldiers. The slaughter of Berg. These images are generally censored because the censors know how powerfully they affect public opinion.

If Americans aren't allowed to see the real consequences of continuing this war, then the ghastly nature of the whole affair remains abstract and theoretical. The stupidity and tragedy of this war, and this Presidency, may never end. Politicians and propagandists, especially Neo-Con chickenhawks, armchair-general the war, encourage 'cracking down' or a particular offensive with no clue as the real costs in human lives and misery that such decisions entail. The American public, unfortified by a belfry full of gruesome images, make political decisions about the war with no clear idea of what the evil they have ordered up looks like. The more intimate people are with the horror that war entails, the less likely the are to advocate for facile and violent solutions to problems.

Frankly, if I had the option to decide such things, every television channel, every minute of every day would be dedicated to broadcasting Berg's death, the bodies of the war dead, our broken and wounded soldiers, innocent civilians casualties, and the bodies of our fallen 'enemies'. Americans are so arrogant; we have grown careless of the vast power we wield. We wield power of life and death for others with such casualness, and from a place of such total ignorance of the real consequences, that we should be made to suffer such images every minute of the war. Technology allows us to make war by push-button, effectively ordering the death of thousands at the cost of a few hundred of us taking a poll and putting our children a little deeper in debt. The morality of that is highly questionable. We no longer draft - at least not yet - and so these decisions only affect the lives of a small minority of Americans, generally people from the nation's poorest and least educated demographics. Something has to keep us accountable for what we do, put a check on the viciouness of people to whom killing has no cost; those images we don't want to look at are the only hearing the dead will ever get from us. The reaction of public opinion to images of war's horrors is the only way the innocent victims get a voice in what we decide. To censor these communication from the slain and miserable is to deny their existence and their pain, and helps to maintain the bubble of self-involvement that the Bush Administration counts on to give them license to committ crimes in our names.

In fact, our education should start on the very floor of the Congress. Every man or woman who votes for war should be put to death exactly as Nick Berg was put to death, live and on television. That way, we can be sure that the men and women who vote for war become its first victims. Nor should they be allowed to know the vote tally before voting. They should never know if their sacrifice was in vain. In this way, we can be sure that they have a genuine personal conviction that the safety of the nation is in grave peril, and they aren't just getting the issue behind them to position for mid-term elections.

I think that I owed it to Nick Berg to watch him die. It is the only thing I can do for him. His death would be completely without purpose if people don't see the madness this war has wrought for so many, including Nick. I think that if it were me in Nick's place, I would want every single American to have to look at what their decisions meant for me, even if they continue to support the war, at least they do so with an additional icy blast of reality in the faces.

Every time something terrible happens to somebody as a result of war, it is a lesson to a jaded and apathetic public. Perhaps there is actually a moral obligation not to duck such lessons, but rather to face them head on, no matter how unpleasant they may be. If the result of this instruction is less war, how can it be anything but a moral imperative?

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