The tragedy of Nick Berg

Published May 11, 2004 10:02PM (EDT)

Images, more than anything, have driven home to Americans the cost of George W. Bush's war. And images -- whether of coffins of fallen U.S. soldiers at Dover Air Force Base, the faces of the dead and their names being read by Ted Koppel, or the humiliation, abuse and torture at U.S. prisons in Iraq -- are forcing Americans to question whether the losses suffered are too much to bear. Now, we're gripped by another image. The apparent videotaped beheading of an American civilian in Iraq has already sent shockwaves through the nation, adding fuel to the burning controversy over the Iraqi prison abuse scandal and inevitably putting the Bush administration further on the defensive to defend its mission in Iraq.

Nick Berg, a 26-year-old businessman from the Philadelphia suburbs, was apparently executed by men who claim to have links to al-Qaida and who claimed revenge for the abuses at Abu Ghraib. A portion of the videotape was reportedly shown on Fox News and MSNBC, showing Berg bound and wearing an orange jumpsuit. "My name is Nick Berg, my father's name is Michael ... I have a brother and sister, David and Sarah," he said on the tape.

How Berg came to be captured by these alleged al-Qaida forces in Iraq is still murky. Berg spoke to his parents on March 24 and told them he would return home six days later. But Berg was reportedly detained by Iraqi police at a checkpoint in Mosul and turned over to U.S. officials, who detained him for 13 days. Berg's parents say Nick wasn't allowed to make phone calls or contact a lawyer while in custody. It seems that U.S. officials were trying to confirm his identity -- FBI agents visited Berg's parents in suburban Philadelphia on March 31 to check out his story. Six days later, the Bergs filed a lawsuit in federal court arguing their son was being held illegally by the U.S. military, although military officials say they never detained him, saying Iraqi police thought he might have been using fabricated identification. Berg was released, and spoke to his parents, saying he hadn't been mistreated. Berg told his parents he would try to get home through Jordan, Turkey or Kuwait, whatever was safest and easiest. But the Bergs did not hear from their son again.

Michael Berg, Nick's father, is expressing outrage at the U.S. government for, in his view, creating circumstances that led to his son's death. If U.S. officials in Iraq had not detained Berg for so long, then released him into an increasingly chaotic and unsafe environment, perhaps Berg could have made it out of the country alive, his father says. "I think a lot of people are fed up with the lack of civil rights this thing has caused," Michael Berg says of the Iraq war. "I don't think this administration is committed to democracy." There are still many questions to be answered about why Berg was in Iraq, why he was detained, and how and why he was captured, but the Berg family's loss is undeniable. Many other parents could soon share Michael Berg's anger.

The latest Gallup poll shows that for the first time, a majority of Americans say the war in Iraq was not worth it. The tragedy of Nick Berg, and the anguish voiced by his family over the circumstances that led to his death, can only add more doubt in the minds of Americans that the Iraq debacle is worth another lost life.

By Geraldine Sealey

Geraldine Sealey is senior news editor at

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