Prompted by Jim’s response to my earlier post on Berg being in US custody, Ilyka and I have been engaged in a discussion in the comment section concerning one of the main inconsistencies in the video purporting to show Berg’s death. Specifically, the absence of blood. While some may think it gruesome – or even disrespectful to Nick Berg’s memory – to ponder these things, I disagree.
As I noted in the comments on that entry, my lawyer mind has a tendency to obsess over inconsistencies. In this case, I am extremely puzzled by al-Qaeda’s apparent efforts to appear as if they were murdering Berg on film when clearly they were not. According to the video’s time stamp 11 hours passed between the time the terrorists read their statement – at the conclusion of which Berg is heard screaming – and the time the video shows Berg’s beheading. Additionally, the fact that Berg did not scream again while they brutally cut his throat, and the absence of significant additional blood, is proof enough that he was already dead.
I do not intend that to mean that I’m disappointed in the amount of blood shed. How ghoulish and sick. On the contrary, I hope Nick Berg had a swift death and is now at peace. I am simply trying to understand why he died. Oh, I’m aware of the inane conjectures about his “ties to al-Qaeda”, etc. But if we are to honor Nick Berg properly, I suggest that the best way to do it is to understand why he was killed.*
That al-Qaeda used Nick Berg as a tool and a sacrifice to “send a message” to the U.S. is beyond dispute.** What I cannot comprehend is why they would try to pass of the video as the “slaughtering of an American” when, the evidence shows, he could not have been alive when he was beheaded.
Why is that important to me? I don’t know. Perhaps it’s the fact that al-Qaeda, by all appearances, now consists of two factions that are at war with each other while simultaneously warring against the West: Osama bin Laden’s and al-Zarqawi’s. We, as a nation, have previously been focused on bin Laden as the primary power behind al-Qaeda and have directed our efforts toward locating and eliminating him. In fact, Colin Powell had once described al-Zarqawi as an “associate and collaborator” of bin Laden’s. Yet it was al-Zarqawi who committed the murder, as voice analysis has confirmed. In doing so, he read a statement denouncing Islamic scholars – the precise image that Osama bin Laden has studiously cultivated for himself.
The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’m convinced that the Berg video was not ultimately intended to be a message to the U.S about the Abu Ghirab prisoner abuse. Had that been the goal there were other, more dramatic ways to have made the point: by capturing groups of Americans and subjecting them to similar torture, for instance, which would’ve prompted the U.S. military to attempt a rescue operation and undoubtedly led to further loss of American lives.
No, I’m convinced that al-Zarqawi’s real message was directed toward Osama bin Laden’s faction of al-Qaeda and, more pointedly, toward the current and potential terrorist recruits who believe bin Laden is now powerless to strike against the West. In other words, it was a power play – an attempt by al-Zarqawi to separate himself and his faction from the impotent “Islamic scholars” like bin Laden. It was al-Zarqawi’s “spectacular” – different from bin Laden’s in that only one death ensued, but just as powerful in its psychic blow.
In that context, the fact that Nick Berg was already dead at the time of his beheading was actually part of the message and thus no effort was made to cover up the fact. Consider:
3. Prisoners of war should not be slain: “No prisoner should be put to the sword” – a very clear and unequivocal instruction given by the Prophet.
4. No-one should be tied to be killed: “The Prophet has prohibited the killing of anyone who is tied or is in captivity.”[...]
7. Sanctity of a dead body: Islam has categorically prohibited its followers from mutilating the corpses of their enemies, as was practised in Arabia before the advent of Islam. It is said in the Hadith: “The Prophet has prohibited us from mutilating the corpses of the enemies” (Bukhari, AbuDawood). The occasion on which this order was given is highly instructive. In the battle of Uhud the disbelievers mutilated the bodies of the Muslims who had fallen on the battlefield by cutting off their ears and noses and threading them together to put round their necks as trophies of war. The stomach of Hamza, the uncle of the Prophet, was ripped open by the Quraysh and his liver was taken out and chewed by Hinda, the wife of AbuSufyan, the leader of the Makkan army. The Muslims were naturally enraged by this horrible sight. But the Prophet asked his followers not to mete out similar treatment to the dead bodies of the enemies.
Thus, the point was not so much to portray the death of an American but, rather, the desecration of a body. In other words, the video intentionally showed the desecration of Nick Berg’s body, the defiling of his corpse serving as an expression of contempt for him as a proxy for all Americans, and contempt for the way bin Laden tries to portray himself as aligned with ancient authorities on Islam.
To put it another way, the video was yet another tool al-Zarqawi is using to create sectarian conflict between Muslims, the goal he declared in what is now called the “al-Zarqawi letter.”
Ultimately, I believe the purpose of the video – and al-Zarqawi’s rhetoric in the Berg video seems to confirm this – was to show that he has set himself against not only America and the Shi’a, but againt Osama bin Laden’s interpretation of their mutual jihad, as well. The video, then, delivers not only a message to the West, but also to bin Laden, and serves as a rallying call to all of the extremists who believe – like most of the US intelligence community – that bin Laden no longer has the power to advance their cause.
* As much as my heart goes out to Mr. Berg’s family in this time of grief and loss, I am unwilling to share their attitude that Nick Berg was murdered in connection with any acts or omissions by Bush or Rumsfeld.
** I’m not even going to entertain the baseless argument that the CIA, and not al-Qaeda, was behind this video. Don’t bother littering my comment section with such notions, either.