The Last Moments in the Life of Nick Berg

I have just seen video footage of the decapitation of Nicholas Berg. It arrived in a link to an email sent to me by an acquaintance. Only “decapitation” is the wrong word to describe what happened. Among the cries and screams, Berg was pushed onto his side while his executioner grabbed him from the top of his head and sawed it off from the remainder of his body with a medium-length blade.

This is not decapitation. This is butchery. It was savage and it was not quick. It was shocking and excruciating to watch. I am still trying to recover.

I hesitated before watching the video, and now I am not sure it was worth watching. Some things should not be seen. I guess my curiosity got the better of me.

After having seen the video, I logged onto as many websites as I could find carrying the story, to find out what had happened. To be honest, before I had watched the video, the story had not really attracted my attention. In war people are killed everyday. Only it’s not always brought to one’s attention in as brutal and direct a manner as this was: in my own home. And that’s the catch. This was precisely what Berg’s captors had intended.

This became all the more obvious as I sat down in my living room and watched the release of prisoners on the news from the notorious Abu Ghraib prison. Some of the detainees being released were still wearing their bright orange prison jump suits: just like the one Berg was wearing when he spoke to the camera moments before his captors sawed his head off. The link was clear. If you treat our men and women with savagery then we will do the same to yours.

In the comments on BBC Online’s “talking point” people expressed outrage, shock and shame as to what they had witnessed, in particular in the Arab world, where many news stations, whether it was Al-Jazeera or Al-Arabiya, refused to broadcast the images as they are too grotesque. This did not mean, however, that people did not get to witness this atrocity on the internet. The Lebanese Hezbollah station Al-Manar expressed outrage and called the incident un-Islamic, as did Hamas.

As I read more and more about what had happened, I discovered from the Guardian newspaper that Berg’s captors had offered his release to the US authorities in exchange for Iraqi prisoners. However, the US authorities refused. Before the slaughter, Berg’s executioner read a statement from several pages. He reportedly said:

“For the mothers and wives of American soldiers, we tell you that we offered the US administration to exchange this hostage with some of the detainees in Abu Ghraib and they refused…”

From the moment the US authorities refused to contemplate a prisoner exchange, Berg’s fate was sealed. Why did the Americans refuse a prisoner exchange for Berg, when only yesterday they were releasing hundreds of Iraqi prisoners, many of them still in their orange jump suits and imprisoned without charge, after a visit by Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld? If these people are a security risk, surely they would not have been released, and if they are not security risks, why did the US authorities not agree to a prisoner exchange for the life of Berg and spare us this brutal carnage?

However, it is obvious that there is more to this story than meets the eye. Why was Berg (a Jew) alone, drunk (in an Arab country), unprotected and “messing around” in Mosul in the first place–not that any of these reasons justify what happened to him. They just raise a lot of questions. It seems to me that as is usual in this business, there are many questions and few answers. Perhaps there should be an enquiry by the US government into what really happened, if not only to ensure that this never happens to anyone else again.

The last moments of the life of Nicholas Berg raise many interesting, grotesque and thought-provoking issues. It is a demonstration of the power of the internet, and that governments no longer have a monopoly on information. The Americans have underestimated their adversary. They thought the war in Iraq would be a walkover. Certainly, in military terms it was. However the war is not over, and propaganda is part and parcel of this war, as in all wars throughout history, and Berg’s captors were only too well aware of that.

VICTOR KATTAN is a correspondent for Arab Media Watch who covered the oral pleadings which took place before the International Court of Justice in The Hague in February 2004. He is the author of “The Right of Return Revisited”, which will be published in a forthcoming edition of the Mediterranean Journal of Human Rights. He can be reached at: