No wonder, then, that Michael, diving headlong into the raw pro- and anti-war debate, has come across quite differently from other parents who have violently lost children and grieved publicly, who got on our radar and stayed there. From John Walsh, who turned his son’s murder, in the words of Larry King, into “a powerful force for good” by becoming host of America’s Most Wanted; or Marc Klass, whose daughter’s abduction and murder catapulted him into becoming the roguish face of child-safety advocacy. The difference is, they weren’t taking something from us, something we need. Walsh and Klass were affirming figures; we could all agree on the enemy, those perverts who took their children. Michael Berg did the opposite. By defining the enemy as George Bush, he was pointing the finger, too, at anyone enabling the President, meaning us — all of us who “support our troops.” We were all culpable. In essence, he was saying to all of us, You killed my son.
Willing to confront us, yes. But speaking out was not simple, or easy. Michael Berg is far from some left-wing howitzer. He is a small man, made smaller — down to 133 pounds — by his son’s murder. He is orderly and careful. He is well-educated, with, say, the colonialist history of the Middle East on the tip of his tongue, but he’s no man of the world. Whereas Nick flitted around warring Iraq in taxis, the few words of Arabic he knew good enough to try to drum up radio-tower repair work, Michael found going to Paris last summer to speak at a rally unnerving — he told his wife, who stayed home, that France was a country without any clocks, given that nothing happened on time.
His family was an even tougher challenge. Wife Suzie, and David and Sara, his grown son and daughter, asked for his silence — asked that he grieve, like them, privately. This was, literally speaking, impossible: Twenty-four hours after the State Department called Michael with the news of Nick’s death, an AP reporter was at his door with the news that the beheading was posted on the Internet for all the world to see. It was the worst thing, next to Nick’s death, because Michael hadn’t even wanted to tell his family how Nick was killed, after the State Department revealed it to him, but then realized he had to, that they deserved to know, and that he couldn’t carry it around alone. So it would just be them, a few government employees, and then — boom! — the world not only knows but can watch it, revel in it, possess it — an indelible, permanent public horror. With Michael caught collapsing into David’s arms on the front lawn with the news.