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Opinion: Exploiting Inhumanity

The beheading of an American man in Iraq and circulation of the video on the Internet marks a new low in the public exploitation of violence.


A video showing Nick Berg being killed was put online Tuesday

The pictures are becoming ever more unbearable: First the abused Iraqi prisoners, now the young American beheaded on camera. Or the photographs of Iraqi children shot in the back by British soldiers. Or jubilant Palestinians in Gaza holding in their hands body parts of dead Israeli soldiers.

It feels like we've been transported back to the Middle Ages, despite the Geneva Convention, despite the Declaration of Human Rights and despite numerous other international conventions.

Inhumanity is being exploited. Not to promote the war or to decide it, but to serve political aims. Or at least alleged political aims. Regardless of what aims it serves, however, inhumanity is an inadmissible instrument. It was long ago stigmatized as reprehensible, unethical and immoral. But it hasn't been eradicated. And using new technologies, from digital cameras to video recordings to the Internet, such inhumanity will become an inexpensive weapon.

Not new

Al Qaeda adherents kidnapped U.S. journalist Daniel Pearl in Karachi and beheaded him on camera in 2002. A young Italian man's kidnappers filmed shooting him in April, and now we have the video of the American Nick Berg being beheaded in Iraq. Of course, barbarity isn't a new invention. But publicizing it throughout the world gives it more weight and power than in the past.

The deeds and their glorification as ostensible "executions" -- a word that even the western media adopted much too quickly and carelessly -- is meant to show that resistance to U.S. or western superiority is unbroken. Just as the bloody scenes in Gaza are meant to show that resistance to Israel continues unchanged and that the opponent purported to be so powerful is also just made of bits of skin and bone.

Appealing to baseness

Such a strategy is horrendous as well as being dangerous. It appeals to the baser human instincts and encourages imitation. It also encourages the opposite side to clamp down more resolutely. Just after the United States had become enmeshed in an argument about torture in Iraq that was as bitter as it was necessary, the pictures of the young American being beheaded will close the rift between the disputing parties. Consequently, the issue of torture may be pursued less energetically than it had -- much too late -- to start with.

The Iraqis will again be the ones to suffer, or the Palestinians, or the Muslims in general -- the people those who know no better in the West allege "are like that," who you can't approach with humaneness. And under the influence of their demagogues, those people who suffer will more easily believe that the West is out to persecute and repress them. New fools, madmen and criminals will more easily emerge who render the sense of inferiority into new violence.

To stop the spiraling violence, people on both sides of this imaginary "front" must finally recognize that they themselves suffer most when they obey the demagogues. They must recognize they have the most to gain if they recall the basic rules of humanity, avenge and punish crimes, and, thus, put a stop to both the torturers and the cold-blooded killers.

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