In the Name of the Son

When Nick Berg was beheaded in Iraq, America was outraged. So was his father, but not how you would expect

Last June 5th, Michael Berg was asked by an international anti-war organization to make a speech in Lafayette Park, across from the White House. It was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up. In his speech, as he had for the past month, Berg blamed the Bush administration for the beheading, in Iraq, of his son Nick, a freelance radio-tower repairman, even though al Qaeda terrorists had actually killed him, making a video of the deed and posting it on the Internet. From day one, Michael, a retired ­remedial reading teacher from West Chester, had been saying this: “Nicholas Berg died for the sins of George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld.” It was the Bush administration, he claimed, that illegally detained his son for 13 days as the war worsened; Nick missed a flight home, then was abducted and murdered. More to his point, it was the Bush administration that was waging this immoral war in the first place. So here was the perfect platform, before 2,000 cheering protesters in a light rain, for Nick Berg’s father to get the global word out: “The people of America and the world have told me that they have a dream and a vision now, too, and that that dream is a dream of peace, a vision of all nations living together in harmony and love.”

Now, though, the demonstration, escorted by police on bikes and motorcycles, had wended its way to Donald Rumsfeld’s posh address on Kalorama Road. As a speaker addressed the crowd from the back of a pickup truck, another protest organized across the street. A black banner, some 10 feet high, was unfurled: MICHAEL BERG IS A COWARD

It was pointed right at him. There was also a picture, a picture of Nicholas Berg’s severed head, picked up from the video his killers had made.

Michael looked at it, and didn’t look away. He stared, examined it. A tiny part of him still wondered, Could that really be my son? Oh, he knew, of course. But did this really happen to my son? Is that him? He had declined to see Nick’s body when it was flown home, which was a mistake, because all he had to go on was the word of the FBI that the dental records he’d sent them matched up; Michael believed the FBI were notorious liars. This didn’t look like Nick — he had been held for about a month by the terrorists. He had lost 30 pounds. He had hair and a beard; normally he was clean-shaven, with a ­Marine-style buzz cut. So Michael stared, trying to see his son.

This was the cost of getting his anti-war message out, five months before the election — if he was going to politicize his son’s murder, try to get George Bush defeated, that message would be turned back on him. But he had decided he had to take a stand. And the media, a relentless voyeur to his grief, was also useful, Michael had realized, giving him the platform to reach an international audience.

So no matter how ugly it got, he was going to keep at it. As Donald Rumsfeld’s neighborhood was peppered with angry anti- and pro-Bush chants, that banner horrible yet mesmerizing, Michael chanted, too: