Public Beheading in Iraq

Shocking to the core


David McReynolds considers the lessons of the public beheading of Nicolas Berg.


I watched the beheading on one of the web sites. I didn't watch it easily. I did hope it would end up as a gag. It didn't. It was real. It was clear that Berg, sitting placidly there with the men behind him, had no idea what they had in mind, no sense of how short his life would suddenly be, how slim as a sharpened knife his remaining minutes were. Sitting there on the floor, the man read the jibberish (to me - I'm sure it was very important to those who grasp Arabic) and then at the end Berg is seized, his head is placed on the floor, even then I don't think he yet suspects or really understands or believes the end of his life has touched his neck, and there blood everywhere, struggle, much loud screaming, the camera going out of focus because (I suspect) the photographer found it harder than he had expected to document the exact moment when the knife had cut clean through, blood pours everywhere, the yelling ends, the hope of life gone, and the head in the hands of the executioner.


It sickened me absolutely. Let there be no left wing mantras about the number of dead Iraqis as a result of Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld or dead Americans as a result of 9/ll.The issue was this one man, killed in front of us for sins he hadn't committed, songs he hadn't sung, and sins we wouldn't live to commit. Sins of anger, of greed, but also the wonderful sins of eros and the falling headlong into the life of some woman, through her life emerging with her life, with children. And all the gardens and hopes and pains that each of us is entitled to before the lamps go out on our lives. In some peaceful behind the curtains silent way in a hospital many years ahead.


But not in this fashion. No, no. no. It was absolutely sickening. And Yes I worried "will this diminish the impact of the US torture and murder in the distant prisons of Afghanistan, Guantanamo, in Iraq (and to be honest, in our own state-side jails)?.'" Yes, Yes, I was afraid Berg's death would diminish our fury over our "from the top down" pattern of torture and terror.


And then, I realize that Berg had, with his life, and without a joy in the gift, given us a way at last, really, to understand the prison torture. This image shocked us even though it was a simple death devoid of nakedness and torture. It shocked me to my core.


Thus, I realized, Berg's death may help us to understand just what the people of Iraq have gone through. Gay man that I am (old gay man , almost without sexual purpose), I am supposed to be outraged at the clear homosexual gimmicks and games forced on these helpless prisoners, the wearing of women's underwear, the wearing of women's underwear, the simulation of cocksucking, being seen naked by women, women leading them on leashes, women laughing at them.


If a simple straightforward execution horrified me, I realized in a burst of clarity that it also helped me - and thus all of us - to realize that many Iraqi men would have preferred to be beheaded than to live with the photos showing them trapped, naked, led on a leash by women.


It is as if "God sent us Berg" so that we, in our cultures, could finally begin to grasp what had happened in their culture. Now for the first time we see not only how unspeakably wrong the murder of Berg was, but much more important, why the photos of our mistreatment of their men have radiated through all the Arab world.


We, proud West, now stand naked with women's clothing over our faces, while the media snacks upon our privates.


With the most horrible death, Berg gave us the gift of sight. As the saying goes, "Those with eyes can see."


David McReynolds was formerly head of War Resisters' International and in 1980 and 2000 stood as the Socialist Party candidate for President of the United States. He lives in New York City.