ANGELES -- Is this the horror that will finally
undo George Bush's presidency? First Nicholas
Berg, now Paul Johnson: in two months and in two
different countries, two US civilians have been
kidnapped and beheaded by their al-Qa'ida-affiliated
captors, becoming not only pawns in a deadly geopolitical
game but also symbols of the complicated feelings
of revulsion unleashed by the Bush administration's
"war on terror".
is hard not to think back to earlier acts of defiance
against the might of the United States and wonder
if we are not seeing a parallel erosion of presidential
authority: the steady drip-drip of casualty figures
from Vietnam that proved the undoing of Lyndon
Johnson's presidency in 1968, or the corrosive
effect of the Iran hostage crisis on Jimmy Carter
12 years later.
have now witnessed four similar killings of Western
civilians in the conflicts unleashed by the attacks
of 11 September 2001, starting with Daniel Pearl
in Pakistan in January 2002 and including the
Italian Fabrizio Quattrocchi in Iraq in April.
Even in our jaded, news-saturated age there is
something about these cases that bespeaks almost
bottomless horror, in a way that the deaths of
more than 800 US servicemen in Iraq or the violence
and death visited upon thousands of Iraqi civilians
fact that the images of ritual slaughter have
been posted on the internet has only made the
brutality more vivid, more palpable - even to
those who have not had the stomach or the inclination
to watch. This is a propaganda war, fought with
images as much as with guns and knives.
each new beheading, the political mood has shifted.
When the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl
was abducted in Karachi two-and-a-half years ago,
it gave rise to a sense of national, even international
solidarity. There was nothing divisive or controversial
about the mourning that greeted news of his death.
Indeed, his family has gone on to set up a foundation
in his name to promote cross-cultural understanding
that enjoys universal admiration.
case of Nicholas Berg, the 26-year-old from Pennsylvania
abducted and killed in Iraq just last month, was
very different. There was the question of how
exactly he had come to grief, with his family
alleging he had been in US custody and that the
FBI somehow put him in the path of danger on his
release. And there was the anger of his father,
Michael Berg, who said unequivocally: "My
son died for the sins of George Bush and Donald
Berg Snr was at an anti-war demonstration in Washington
two weeks ago in which he continued to denounce
the administration for its "callous behaviour"
which, he said, had "in effect tied him [his
son] to the track until it was no longer possible
to escape that speeding hate train".
would be wrong to believe that the rest of the
United States shares Michael Berg's outlook. Rather,
his anger has underscored the deep polarisation
in American politics between those who have come
to loathe the Bush administration and those determined
to defend its every action. And it remains to
be seen whether Mr Johnson's death provokes anger
against the administration or rather cries for
revenge against his butchers.
the overall mood is slipping away from the President.
Two recent polls show that a majority believe
the war against Saddam Hussein was not worth it.
The Abu Ghraib torture scandal remains incendiary.
And the recent traumatic events in Saudi Arabia
- the siege of a residential compound in the oil
town of al-Khobar last month, the shootings of
Americans and other Westerners, and now the grisly
fate of Mr Johnson - have raised anxious questions
about the direction of US foreign policy and its
ostensible goal of diminishing the terrorist threat.
a Washington Post article was headlined: "Is
al-Qa'ida winning in Saudi Arabia?" It was
just such questions about America's enemies that
led President Johnson to his "Cronkite moment"
in 1968 - his realisation that he could no longer
count on the support of the country's favourite
television news anchor, Walter Cronkite, and that
he had therefore lost the sympathy of the electorate
as a whole.
Posted: June 19, 2004