TCS Daily

The Arab Street and the Murder of Nicholas Berg

By Russell Roberts - May 21, 2004 12:00 AM

The events of the past few weeks in Iraq, culminating in the grotesque murder of Nicholas Berg, have left many of us with a bitter taste. The morality of our mission has been sullied by the vulgar inhumanity exhibited at Abu Ghraib. We have lost the moral high ground. We are told of the anger of the Arab street and the disgust of the Iraqi people over the abuse of prisoners. The slaying of Berg seems emblematic of that reaction and is seen as just the first step in what the media has labeled a cycle of violence, a cycle that appears to be spiraling out of control.

All of this may be true. But the media and the American people have surely misread the significance of the Berg murder. Berg's murderers said that his death was to avenge the abuse at Abu Ghraib. There have been two reactions to the murder. The first is that this is the price we pay when we meddle in the affairs of other nations. We inflame passions and we shouldn't be surprised that those passions spill over in horrifying ways. With the abuse at Abu Ghraib, we lost the moral high ground and provoked murder. On the other side are those who argue that we are at war and that the abuse at Abu Ghraib is simply a pretext for murder. They hated us before Abu Ghraib; they hate us after. To view the murder of Nicholas Berg as morally equivalent to a few rogue Americans who tormented prisoners is absurd.

Which view is correct? Both have missed a crucial point, but it is a dog that did not bark so it is hard to notice. Why didn't Saddam Hussein's torture and murder provoke a "cycle of violence?" What Americans did at Abu Ghraib was disgusting. But surely it pales in comparison to Saddam's cruelties. Why was there no guerrilla warfare against Saddam? Why weren't Saddam's friends and relatives and henchmen kidnapped and murdered in response to the violence against his own people? If the American abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib provoked the death of Nicholas Berg, Saddam Hussein's cruelties should have ignited an apocalypse of resentment.

The quick answer to these puzzles is that we are infidels. The Arabs cannot tolerate Westerners, especially Jews, on "their" soil. The tyranny of Saddam Hussein provokes less outrage because after all, he is an Arab who belongs there. American tyranny, even at more modest levels, is simply unacceptable.

This view is widely accepted as capturing the Arab mentality. Consider the situation in Israel. Everyone expects Israel to maintain an indigenous Arab population fully participating in Israeli society. No one can suggest in polite society that Arabs be expelled from Israel. But at the same time, everyone understands that if Israel withdraws from Gaza, the Jewish settlers cannot stay. Presumably, without protection from the Israeli army, they will be slaughtered. The world does not and would not demand of the Palestinians that they peacefully co-exist with Jews on "Arab" land.

Perhaps this stereotype of the Arab mind is true. It certainly appears to be. But we have no way of knowing. We foolishly assume that interviews from the Arab street are akin to an interview on the streets of Manhattan where people cheerfully stand in front of cameras or reporters with notebooks. In Manhattan, we assume people pretty much say what they are really feeling. But in the Arab street, there should be no presumption. When you live under a ruthless dictator, truth-telling is costly.

So an alternative interpretation of Arab views is that they are merely strategic statements. The murderers of Nicholas Berg are motivated simply by power. Their failure to respond to Saddam's depravities with in equal measure is not evidence of a double standard with respect to American versus domestic abuse. Instead, it tells us what they are really about -- the naked pursuit of power. People capable of beheading an innocent man didn't rebel against Saddam either because they were already on the inside or because Saddam was even more pitiless in stamping out any threat to his regime. The murderers of Berg and those who carry out the sabotage, terrorism and guerilla warfare against American troops and contractors are simply thugs trying to regain the upper hand in Iraq. Their professed reasons for what they do have no content to them. Those public statements are meant to appeal to Westerners' sense of a moral calculus.

This same deceptive dynamic plays out when Palestinian parents are interviewed after being told that their sons or daughters have murdered a bunch of Israeli café patrons. The parents talk about their pride in martyrdom. We in the West are led to believe that the "Arab mind" is intransigent, different from ours and that more violence is inevitable. Not just inevitable, but it will increase and increase. In such a world view, Israeli counterattacks simply create more terrorists. The murder of Berg creates a similar mindset. Responding in kind throws flames on the fire and does more harm than good.

And yet, when the cameras go away, sometimes the mask falls. Once, alas only once, I read a story where the reporter actually stayed and listened to the mother after the press conference had played itself out. She broke down in tears and bitterly condemned a Palestinian leadership that sends children and teenagers to kill and be killed.

I wonder what happened to that woman. My guess is that she played a steep price for revealing her heart. She lived under a thugocracy where violence and the threat of violence are used to keep public statements in line with the needs of the ruthless. We have no idea what the average Palestinian think of the suicide bombers. And we have no idea what the average Iraqi thinks of Abu Ghraib. We should take all such statements professing an opinion, with more than a few grains of salt. In a society where truth-telling is punished relentlessly, truth-telling will be scarce. It will take a long time for Iraqis to become the good-natured interviewees we see from the streets of America.

Which brings us back to the obscene tormentors of Nicholas Berg. They and their allies who seek power want us to believe that they represent a wide-spread nearly unanimous view of the American presence in Iraq. They want us to believe that every American infidel on holy Arab soil is an intolerable presence. Instead of accepting these views on their face, we might consider the possibility that these views are the equivalent of the hardnosed negotiator who wants you to think that no compromise, no matter how small, is possible.

The war in Iraq may turn out to be a terrible mistake. It may turn out to be a boon. But either way, we should pay no more attention to the Arab street than we do to the Cuban street. When Cubans rallied to bring Elian Gonzalez back to Cuba, few were foolish enough to think it represented what those people actually felt. We had no idea. They faced constraints in their behavior that we can only imagine. The same is true of the Arab street. We pay attention to it at our peril.

Russell Roberts ( a professor of economics at George Mason University and a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.


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