On April 6, Nick traveled by bus from Mosul to Baghdad, on the same road where four American contractors had been massacred just days before. A Jordanian acquaintance cautioned him against going to Jordan, but the next day Nick did just that, traveling westward by bus on the Baghdad-Faluja road, precisely during the coalition siege of Faluja.
On the bus, two Arabs were dumbstruck at the lone American seated nearby. Seeing an opportunity to turn a quick profit, they seized him. Nick was promptly sold to thugs in the local mosque and held for almost a month. This period is a blank: whatever happened next is conjecture. Only the end is certain: al- Zarqawi and his bestial cohorts beheaded Nicholas Berg after sundown on Friday, May 7, when their Muslim Sabbath ended. The Americans discovered his body hanging from an overpass the next day. The tragic news reached the family on Monday, May 10.
Reconstructing the scene at the abattoir without witnesses would be impossible. We may surmise that the savage captors were overjoyed with their catch. Here was the perfect victim: an American, a Jew, and an (alleged) Israeli agent all rolled into one. Surely he could not be the innocuous businessman he claimed to be: the muscular build, the calm demeanor, the Israeli passport stamp, the nonchalant bus trip, the electronic expertise – all these bespoke some secret agent with a sinister mission.
The one incongruous item in the suspicious mix was the jarring tsitsit fringes beneath the prisoner’s shirt. Even better. The jihadist imperative was clear: execute the infidel for the greater glory of Allah.
In a perverse and ironic way, perhaps the terrorists were right. Nicholas Berg did die al kiddush Hashem – in sanctification of God’s name. To buttress that assertion, let me explain why I have waited to tell the story and how I came to know it.
A week or two after the appalling news of Nick’s murder, I tracked down Nick’s parents’ phone number and called. I needed to express my abhorrence at this evil and, I think, to assure them that the world cared deeply. His father was inconsolable. At the mere suggestion that Nick was killed, at least in part, because he was Jewish, Michael objected strenuously. “Not so!” he insisted, “we don’t believe in that.”
My suggestion was, to him, the earmark of an alien value system – one at odds with his universalistic philosophy, which rejected any “tribal” Jewish ethnocentrism. Retreating, I hung up. A few days later, I called again and, while trying to offer comfort, asked Michael if he intended to say Kaddish. This provoked the same cool hostility. I thereupon volunteered to say Kaddish. He was shocked but grateful. Later he called back to apologize.
The family’s grief cannot be assuaged, but conversations with the father reflect a growing pride in his son’s re-awakened Jewishness. So much so that in interviews Michael has taken to proudly proclaiming that his sn was “devoutly religious.” He is pleased that Nick was buried in tachrichin and in his grandfather’s talit (and he’s genuinely disturbed at being unable to retrieve his tsitsit).
The family’s (especially Suzanne’s) justifiable horror at the media’s sensationalistic and insensitive reporting has not abated. But the anti-religious stance has softened – perhaps even dissolved. Until recently, an article like this would have caused more anguish. Today, on the threshold of the second yahrzeit, I pray the Bergs will find it comforting.
More important, I hope the interpretation of the facts, as they have surfaced, offers a measure of consolation, and a sense that Nick’s death was not devoid of transcendent meaning – that man’s life is not simply a “passing shadow” leaving no substance or goodness in its wake.