Lost in America

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

"I've always been a government skeptic," he continued. "When Clinton was in power, I believed we were turning government around, and serving people. Doing things that made sense. I thought he had the best interests of the people in mind." Perkel, who believes Bush came to power after a "coup," says it was an appearance by a white chair—standard-issue patio furniture, the same kind Lynndie England is seen sitting in at Abu Ghraib—in the Berg video that finally convinced him something wasn't right. "I broke into shingles," he said, noting that the rash still hadn't gone away. "It was physically traumatic for me to believe that [Americans] were cutting people's heads off."

It is not clear how many people believe that America had some involvement in the Berg killing, but today there are plenty of other (less hysterical) reasons for skepticism. At press time, another video was making the rounds, this one of a wedding in western Iraq that the guests say was broken up by an American attack in which some 40 people were killed. At first, the official story was unequivocal. "Bad things happen in wars," said Major General James Mattis, commander of the First Marine Division. "I don't have to apologize for the conduct of my men." A few days later, the coalition was again on its heels, after the Associated Press received a video of the wedding, casting doubt on the military's assertions.

In the end, Berg's death seems to have been a personal tragedy on a public stage. But if Iraqi accusations are true, the bombed wedding party was a case of a nation wreaking tragedy on individuals—one whose names the public won't remember. Who knows what to believe, about either narrative? They both deserve attention, but one calls for a kind of privacy it's not getting, while the victims in the other can scarcely get their story heard.


"I think government institutions are more and more discredited," said Eric Foner, a historian at Columbia University. "In the early '70s, Watergate came as a part of a general disillusionment with the war in Vietnam. But before Nixon's resignation, you had the Pentagon Papers, the My Lai massacre, CIA assassination plots, and the FBI harassing Martin Luther King. That all came after an era in which people's confidence in government was enormous. Today, the disillusionment comes after 20 or 30 years of denigration in government. The illusions have been stripped."

Foner admitted that September 11 did stem this pessimism, if only for a moment. "Of course public servants became heroes, the firemen, the police. People looked to government to protect them. People displayed the American flag.

"But that seemed to fade, partly because the federal government, with its emphasis on privacy and individualism, never called on people to do anything other than go shopping."

Probably they didn't mean shopping for information. A few days after her first e-mail, young H. responded to a question from the Voice. Was she any closer to understanding the story of Nick Berg?

"I haven't found answers to my questions," H. wrote. "I plan on doing more research tonight. I just now caught a break from running errands with my mother. LOL. She doesn't understand why I am so curious about it, but we have managed to hold a conversation over why it was wrong. And how it may not be him? Talking about Mr. Berg is weird, but it is something I would like to know about. I feel that he shouldn't have died that way and it definitely shouldn't have been recorded and put out on the Internet."


It appears many of her peers are curious too—every few days since the Berg video reached the Internet, it seemed, a school teacher was disciplined for showing it to a class. Some people had to check it out for themselves. But how could one explain the apparent retreat to the packaged explanations peddled by the tin-foil-hat gang?

Fintan Dunne, the creator of Break for News (breakfornews.com), thought "alternative truth" could be presented more professionally. He said traffic to his site spiked when he began publishing material questioning the Berg murder, which he calls a staged event. "There's a genuine interest in the story," he said, in a phone interview from his home outside Dublin. "I don't think people buy the straightforward explanation."

Dunne is well-spoken, with what seems to be an expansive, nuanced view of world politics. His site features articles from the political fringe, but also stories from mainstream publications. "It's a marketing thing," he told the Voice. "It's about establishing a brand or a readership." Isn't he concerned that his more radical views—like his apparent belief that almost everything the U.S. does abroad involves "psychological operations"—will detract from the more important news on his site? "These are not lightly considered views," he replied.

Front and center in his audience of thousands is a kid like H.

"No, sir, it didn't look like him," she wrote in a final e-mail to the paper. "I compared pictures. . . . With Bush, I am upset about his way of doing things in Iraq. It has been mass chaos since he came into power. . . . He acts all tough, but he really isn't. Excuse me for the rude comments about mr president, but he upsets me."

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