Lost in America

From Nicholas Berg to Abu Ghraib, the search for something to trust

By the thousands, the curious still combed the Internet for poor Nicholas Berg last week. The young American businessman, killed by some mysterious hand in Iraq—that of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, or a gang of assassins from Tikrit, or whomever—topped Yahoo's Buzz Index of most frequent Internet searches. The list included, at number 13, the phrase "American beheading video," suggesting that some great bulk of surfers simply craved a few seconds of ghastly footage.

Others were no doubt moved by Berg's compelling and sadly concluded story, and the very public manner in which his family was forced to bear his death.

But another faction was on the lookout for more obscure clues, bits of information to support a story line steeped in intrigue and, frankly, implausibility. It was a reasonable response to the times. Faced with a war many Americans find implausible, waged by a president who lost credibility following bad intelligence about weapons of mass destruction (provided by advisers with a plan for the world), this second faction blurred the line between healthy skepticism and paranoia. Many of those questioning the White House line on Berg were fringe, yes, but they fed on the doubts of a mainstream no longer sure what to believe. Last week, the U.S. either bombed a safe house for terrorists, or an Iraqi wedding. Ahmad Chalabi is either an asset and one of the fathers of the new Iraq, or a spy. And Donald Rumsfeld either authorized the kind of torture meted out at Abu Ghraib, or knew nothing.

Details

Related:
No Such Thing as Paranoia
On the culture of conspiracism by Gary Indiana

After the death of poor Nick Berg, the conspiracy theories were legion, appearing first on websites dedicated to such alternate histories, then making their way to more mainstream news sources. The authors of these theories questioned the authenticity of the Berg video, citing jumps in the time code, glitches in the soundtrack, a lack of blood, even the appearance of seemingly ordinary patio chairs. They also questioned the identity of the film's subjects: Not only was this possibly not Berg, they said, but the "terrorists," noted one website, had "Western-style body posture and mannerisms."

Such speculation was to be expected—after all, there were any number of questions surrounding Berg's death, some of them raised by his family. Why would a young American wander around Iraq in the midst of war, during an outbreak of kidnappings, without protection? Why had he been arrested by Iraqi police and questioned repeatedly by the FBI? His father's anti-war views and public denunciations of the Bush administration helped crystallize the doubt for some Americans, already coping with the sordid pictures of torture from Abu Ghraib prison and the simmering violence against the occupation forces in Iraq. And wasn't al-Zarqawi, on whom the CIA first hung the murder, supposed to be missing a leg?

H., a confused 15-year-old girl from Texas, wrote an e-mail to this newspaper, looking for answers.

"OK, so the problem I am facing is whether or not it was Nick Berg in the video. My friends in my debate class have viewed the video and I didn't. I have seen photos of the video and it doesn't look like him. Also, his final words puzzled me as well. Why were people expecting him to say 'My father is a Jew, my mother is a Jew, and I am a Jew.' I am unsure about all this. Could you help me out here. I am a sophomore in high school, so you could probably understand why I am asking about this. Thank you."


The morbid fascination with Nicholas Berg suggests that America is either a nation of voyeurs, or a people increasingly uncomfortable with the official story. Or both.

"People are profoundly shaken by this," said Stanley Kutler, a historian and retired professor at the University of Wisconsin, referring not only to the Berg incident, but the Abu Ghraib pictures as well. "We are in a very strange moment. . . . We live in a day and age when information, not knowledge, is widely disseminated. We have newscasts and radio call-in shows. The idea of citizen involvement has taken a paradoxical turn in our lives. Citizens have misinformation, and they apply it. . . . Just look at the number of people who believe that in October, [the administration] is going to bring out Osama bin Laden."

Kutler, who has authored a number of books on former president Richard Nixon, made clear he has no special regard for President Bush, and that the current state of things—he called America "profoundly adrift"—has its roots in the scandals of the late 1960s and mid '70s, the period bookended by the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal. "Cynicism is a corrosive thing," he said. "You suspect everything—conspiracies here and there."

Even the conspiracy theorists are unduly pessimistic.

"The U.S. today is the lowest it's ever been," said Marc Perkel, a political activist who runs a Web page called the Church of Reality ("It is a religion that is based on believing in everything that is real," he writes). He said Web traffic on his site jumped by a thousand times after he posted some of his theories about the Berg video.

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