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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 Iraqthat of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, or a gang of assassins from Tikrit, or whomevertopped 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.
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 expectedafter 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 thingshe 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 everythingconspiracies 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.
"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 chairstandard-issue patio furniture, the same kind Lynndie England is seen sitting in at Abu Ghraibin 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 individualsone 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 tooevery 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 viewslike 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."