Jewish World Review May 17, 2004 / 26 Iyar, 5764

Zev Chafets

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The Berg dilemma | Who owns Nick Berg? Who wants him?

In these days of crazed jihad and bitter domestic politics, the young American was bound to become a symbol.

But whose?

The first to lay claim were the masked men who sliced the head from Berg's body in the name of Allah.

They videotaped the ritual slaughter to frighten the infidels, but they also had another purpose in mind: They wanted to send the message to their fellow jihadis that there's a new chief in town and his name is Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Islamic terrorists are no better than anyone else; they, too, suffer from professional jealousies. Hezbollah, which belongs to Iran, and the Muslim Brotherhood, a faction of Al Qaeda commanded by Ayman Al-Zawahiri, cattily dismissed the scalping as "un-Islamic."

At first, Arab governments greeted the Berg affair with an approving silence; beheading Americans is a popular form of protest in the Middle East. But soon enough it dawned on the region's leaders that Berg's decapitation was diverting attention from the propaganda bonanza at Abu Ghraib prison. The official commentators of Araby (there is no other kind) sulkily blamed Zarqawi for selfishly distracting the world from America's Crime of the Century.

The Bush administration saw this distraction as a bonanza. The President embraced Nick Berg as a fine young American entrepreneur and patriot whose sadistic murder showed what real barbarism looks like. The White House fully intended for Berg to become its symbol, the personification of the war's underlying rationale.

Then Berg's father, Michael, stepped in and snatched his son back. He accused Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld of killing the boy, conceding only that Al Qaeda might be "just as bad." Then he mitigated this harsh judgment of the killers by crediting them with ignorance: Al Qaeda simply hadn't realized that Nick Berg has been their "best friend."

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Naturally, Bush backed away. Nobody wants to get into a tug of war with a grieving father over a severed head.

Politics abhors a vacuum. John Kerry put in a condolence call to Michael Berg. Then the candidate met the press. "He feels let down by those who should have been protecting his son," Kerry told journalist Alan Colmes. Message: I, John F. Kerry, would make a more reliable guardian of the heads of young Americans.

But Kerry may have been a bit too quick to embrace the Berg family. Michael Berg, it turns out, isn't merely a distraught dad. He is also a proud member of ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism), a Stalinist sect that regards the Democratic Party as part and parcel of the colonialist, imperialist, racist, war-mongering monstrosity that is America. Not the best sidekick for a candidate trying to become Mr. National Security.

It was Michael Berg who told the world his son had been in Iraq supporting the war. Maybe. But there are some questions. The biggest is, how did 9/11 suspect Zacarias Moussaoui wind up with Berg's computer password back in 1999? John Ashcroft believes it was a coincidence. Could be, but the odds are rather long.

They get longer when we learn that Berg traveled around the Middle East studying Arabic, that he had a mysterious "relative" in Iraq and that, when he was stopped by police, he was carrying a Koran and an anti-Zionist tract in his luggage. He also had a "business" that no one seems to know much about.

We still don't know who the real Nick Berg was and why he was killed. He may have been a naive, luckless kid who stumbled into a trap. Or he may have been up to something a bit less innocent. Sooner or later we'll find out. When we do, we'll know whose symbol he actually is.

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JWR contributor Zev Chafets is a columnist for The New York Daily News. Comment by clicking here.

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