Berg's killing changed the subject - but for how long?
Americans grappled with shocking new images of horror, from scenes of masked militants beheading a Pennsylvania man to descriptions of US soldiers torturing and humiliating Iraqi prisoners. After days of issuing apologies, US President George Bush shifted from defense to offense with a tough condemnation of terrorists. The ghastly pictures provided ammunition for those who think outrage over prisoner abuse is overblown.
Americans grappled with shocking new images of horror, from scenes of masked militants beheading a Pennsylvania man to descriptions of US soldiers torturing and humiliating Iraqi prisoners. After days of issuing apologies, US President George Bush shifted from defense to offense with a tough condemnation of terrorists.
Splashed across front pages, the ghastly pictures just before the decapitation of Nicholas Berg provided ammunition for those who think the world's outrage over prisoner abuse has been overblown or misdirected, when the real enemy is al-Qaida and like-minded terrorist groups.
"As bad as some of the things were that were done to Iraqi prisoners, it didn't involve beheading," said Senator Jon Kyl, Republican of Arizona. "That doesn't justify it, but it does to some extent put it in context and show you what you're dealing with in terms of the enemy."
For days, conservative talk radio shows have been fuming about the heavy attention paid to abuses in Abu Ghraib prison by relatively few US soldiers. The feeling spilled out in the Senate when Republican James Inhofe said he - and others - were "more outraged by the outrage than we are by the treatment" of the prisoners.
Loath to express regret, Bush has been forced to apologize repeatedly for the abuse of Iraqi prisoners. The issue has deepened doubts about his Iraq policy at a time when his approval rating is at the lowest point of his presidency. And, for the first time, Americans are divided over whether Bush or Democratic rival John Kerry would better handle Iraq.
Berg's death gave Bush an opportunity to stop saying sorry. "The actions of the terrorists who executed this man remind us of the nature of the few people who want to stop the advance of freedom in Iraq," Bush said at the White House. "Their intention is to shake our will. Their intention is to shake our confidence. Yet, by their actions, they remind us of how desperately parts of the world need free societies and peaceful societies. And we will complete our mission."
Hours after Bush spoke, members of Congress went to private screenings of new photos of US soldiers involved in torture, forced sex and humiliation of Iraqi prisoners. The screenings rekindled the controversy over abuse by US troops. "I don't know how the hell these people got into our army," Ben Nighthorse Campbell, Republican of Colorado, said as grim-faced lawmakers were shaken by what they saw.
Political analysts said Berg's videotaped killing might give Bush some political breathing room on the abuse scandal, but probably not much.
"The scandal points to kind of a poisonous situation," said Princeton University political scientist Fred Greenstein. "I think the bottom line finally, almost certainly, becomes, we probably shouldn't have gotten in there to begin with."
Brookings Institution presidential specialist Thomas Mann said Americans will be outraged at Berg's killing and demand retribution. "On the other hand," he said, "it occurs in the midst of what appears to be an unraveling of our effort in Iraq and growing public doubts about the value of our having gone in. I suspect that the anger will give way to dismay and continue the trends that we've seen."
Political psychologist Stanley Renshon of City University of New York said it was "a matter of strategic stupidity" for the terrorists to release the Berg video now.
"What happened in the prison was awful and disgusting and disturbing but in no way begins to match the brutality, the purposeful brutality of the beheading" - as well as the killings and mutilations of US contract workers in Iraq or the beheading of journalist Daniel Pearl, said Renshon.
He said the video of Berg was "a fairly big deal. I don't know that it turns the corner (on the US controversy). But it represents a step away from being submerged in the guilt and distaste that those prison pictures made most people feel." Abdullah Sahar, a Kuwait University political scientist, agreed that the tactics of the Islamic militants who killed Berg may backfire. The treatment of Abu Ghraib prisoners has been the top story in the Middle East for the past 10 days. "We were winning international sympathy because of what happened at Abu Ghraib, but they come and waste it all," said Sahar.