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Conspiracy theorists and the Nicholas Berg video

Author: Mitch
Posted: 23 May 2004

People are funny. I don't mean funny in the sense that they make good jokes or wear silly hats, though they certainly do those things. I mean they act and think in ways that defy logic and reason. Less than a week after the video record of Nicholas Berg's murder was released, the internet was already blowing up with conspiracy theories. Everything I've read, attributed to many different authors, says the same thing. People are replicating the same points over and over, to the point where every "news" site suggesting trickery might be involved in this story is a virtual carbon copy of the others.

There's a good compendium of the arguments against this tape's veracity at Kuro5hin, and I have to admit that it seems something fishy is going on. But it's amazing how people with an agenda can offer anything as proof of their cause. Even before the cries of "hoax!" began, supporters and opponents of the war in Iraq used Berg's murder as vindication for their point of view.

For the hawks, this was proof of the depravity and inhumanity of our opponent, and all the justification we need to keep fighting them. The doves said this was the result of our warmongering, and, in a sense, we're getting what's coming to us. Both arguments follow reasonable logic. Which side you come down on depends upon, alas, whatever you believed in the first place. This is why politics get so nasty.

Naturally, anyone who already believes the government is some shadowy conspiracy, possibly acting as an arm of the Illuminati, is going to think every world event is based on that conspiracy. It's not that I don't think the government would like to wield that sort of power - I just don't think they're smart enough to pull it off. People fuck up all the time, in all sorts of ways. Most of us can't even walk down the street without committing some kind of mind-boggling boner. President Clinton couldn't get a blow job without the entire country finding out, forcing us, against our will, to picture Monica Lewinski with a mouthful of presidential cock. Yet we're to believe that a secret cabal of super-geniuses is running the whole world, drinking the blood of the innocent and increasing their power by the day? Does it even matter if five guys have "all the power?" Not much they can do with it if it's a secret, is there?

But for conspiracy buffs, Nick Berg's video is the smoking gun that proves evil forces truly are at work in the world, and not the evil forces you might be thinking. They're calling it a shoddily-constructed PsyOp gone wrong. And, as I said, there are anomalies. But I took it upon myself to watch the video closely last night, not as a disgusted US citizen, but as a scientist. I'm going to discuss some of the more salient points made by those who feel the video is a fake.

1. The jumpsuit

Many claim that Berg is wearing a standard U.S. issue prison jumpsuit. This certainly is possible, though with the quality of the video being what it is, it's hard to say anything for certain except that his clothes are orange. But you do have to wonder what the significance of that would be. What's more likely: that the United States would make this video themselves and forget to remove the attire proving that Berg is in US custody, or that orange jumpsuits just aren't that hard to come by? Hell, I got an authentic Naval flight suit last Halloween for fifty bucks. That doesn't mean I was in the military.

Remember, just because we can't say that he isn't wearing a U.S. prison jumpsuit doesn't mean that he is.

2. The timing

The phrase "wag the dog" has come up more times than I care to count. As the US was reeling from the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse and Bush's approval rating was dropping, this tape mysteriously surfaced. Suddenly, the fury of the populace was again focused on those brown-skinned motherfuckers, right where it should be. Certainly, the timing of the video was convenient. But to say that the U.S. government made this tape as a response to the disclosure of the Abu Ghraib nightmare seems to be no more or less feasible than the following two scenarios:

  • The murder was a response to the prisoner abuse, as the voice on the tape claims
  • The tape was released when it was to ameliorate the anger of US citizens over the actions of its military.

    To me, the latter point actually makes a great deal of sense. I would not be surprised to find that people were trying to keep the tape hidden, then found that publicizing it would be in their best interests. But the former is the simplest, and I think William of Occam would like it.

    2a. The timing, continued

    The voice on the tape claims that Berg's murder is retaliation for Abu Ghraib. But when did Nicholas Berg actually die? I don't know for sure, but as much as people are absolutely certain that he died before the Abu Ghraib photos leaked, this is all I could find to back up that assertion:

    "me and a friend were discussing recent news events and trying to piece together the information presented to us, thought you might want to look into this further, they said in the news that Nicholas Berg was killed 2 weeks ago (i think), however in the video the culprits who killed him said they were "avenging iraqi prisoner abuse" but those photos weren't released until last week, so my question is how is that even a possible motive if he was killed prior to the abuse photos being released?? maybe i am misinformed but thought id ask the question to someone who would look into it."

    That same email has been quoted in numerous places, not only in the K5 article. Yet I can't find where in the news it said he was killed two weeks prior. Sorry. And no one answers this emailer's question, only props it up as evidence of trickery.

    3. The killers

    Hoo boy, there's a lot to cover here. I'll make try to make each point brief.

  • The man on the left of the frame stands in parade rest.

    "Parade rest" is the stance taken by members of the United States military when not standing at attention. It involves standing with one's feet shoulder-width apart, and hands behind the back. I can't say if other militaries train people to stand in this manner, though it does seem likely. What I do know is this: standing with one's hands behind one's back is a perfectly natural way to stand. And only one of the five men is standing that way. This is what we call grasping at straws.

  • Look at their hands! The "terrorists" are white!

    Er... Again, the quality of the video makes it hard to tell. I really can't be sure if this is true or not, which makes me wonder how so many other people are so damned sure.

  • Look at their hands again! That one dude is wearing a gold ring, which is proscribed by Muslim law!

    Does anyone better acquainted with Islam want to clear this up for me? I have no idea if Islam forbids the wearing of gold. This could very well be one of those "facts" that everyone knows, like how Kentucky Fried Chicken changed its name to KFC because the genetically modified birds they use in their products are not legally chicken.

    Perhaps more importantly, it's hard to say from this video whether the ring is actually gold. There are many other yellowish metals in the world. And the trump: people who do this stuff obviously aren't sticking too closely to religious doctrine in the first place.

    A slightly more convincing case - to me, anyway - is that Islam restricts the use of the left hand to toilet functions, and that's the hand with the ring (again, the phrase "toilet functions" has appeared just about everywhere - I could be succumbing to foolishness in assuming it's true). But when I say "slightly" convincing, I mean only very slightly. I could also point out that the dude reading off the paper is holding it in his left hand. Allah gave us two hands for a reason.

  • The terrorists are well-fed - highly unlikely if they've been fighting a war and living on the run for the past year

    This one's really reaching. How many people are coming across the border to help in the resistance? How many rich men are sympathetic to the terrorist cause? If these men do have a connection to Al-Qaeda - which may be a dubious claim in itself - then they've obviously got a decent cash flow.

    4. The beheading

    Here's another point people are perpetuating without stopping to think. They read it on the internet, so it must be true. Much has been made of the "lack of blood" involved in the beheading. Anyone familiar with the unfortunate case of former NHL goalie Clint Malarchuk knows the amount of blood the jugular vein can spray out.

    (So you don't have to ask: Clint Malarchuk was playing goal for the Buffalo Sabres in 1989 when a winger on the St. Louis Blues was upended in front of him. The winger's skate sliced open Malarchuk's jugular vein and he nearly bled to death on the ice. Since then, goalies wear plastic neck guards.)

    So why isn't there an arterial spray coating the entire room? I can think of a couple reasons: One, having worked in a slaughterhouse I've seen plenty of live beheadings in my time. And in each one of them, the blood poured out rather than sprayed. Think of it like your garden hose: when you cover most of the opening with your thumb, the water pressure is greater and sprays much further. When unfettered, the liquid just kind of dumps out.

    Second, the jugular vein is one of the largest carriers of blood in the body, but it doesn't take up one's whole neck. If the incision started anywhere else on the neck, there would be plenty of time for Berg to die and or bleed before the jugular was severed.

    And I have watched the video. A ton of blood does pour out of his neck onto the floor. It's there.

    The beheading certainly looks real to me, from what I know of biology. People think it's easy to cut someone's head off, but even with a sharp knife there's all sorts of bone, sinew and tendons to get through. I know this from reading various thrillers by authors like Lee Child. And if you watch the tape, it's a fucking chore to get the guy's head off.

    But there are also claims that he was dead before the beheading. Even if that's true, what does that prove? Why is that proof of U.S. complicity?

    Let's work with this. And let's dismiss out of hand the claim that Berg's scream is actually a woman's scream dubbed onto the tape. That's too dumb for words, and not a little disrespectful to the guy. Bad enough he was murdered - now we've got to cut his balls off, too?

    Anyway, it's as simple as watching the tape. He was alive when they were cutting off his head. You can see his mouth moving until about halfway through the act. You can see the pain and terror on his face. I don't know how so many people could notice the mysterious timestamp discrepancies and not see the look on Berg's face.

    They claim he doesn't resist. They say he doesn't struggle. Well, look, when five guys are holding you down and you're tied up, there's not a whole lot you can do but yell. When I watch this video, I see a guy in shock and disbelief. He looks alive to me.

    The final point I want to address is that of Berg's severed head held aloft. It is dripping blood, as well as some awful tendon-looking thing. People claim there should be more blood coming from his head, but that doesn't make sense to me. After the initial, significant blood loss when the cutting began, how much blood would be left in his head? Certainly, no more would be able to get there.

    5. The chair

    Man, it was awful having to think about that for so long. Let's move on to a lighter point. Look at the white chair he's sitting in at the beginning of the video, when he identifies himself. That's the same as the chairs in Abu Ghraib! It's also the same as the chairs on my grandparents' lawn. They must be terrorists! Or part of the evil military-industrial complex! I always knew something was rotten over there.

    6. The victim

    The man in the video doesn't look like the man in the Berg family's photographs that were released to the media. This is actually true. He looks a lot different in the video. He's much thinner after a couple months in Iraq and is rocking the chinstrap beard. Plus he has a full head of hair. Different guy? Hard to say. But I could take a guess. I have to think that Berg's father, who has not been reticent about speaking to the media, would probably notice if it weren't his son in the video. Maybe.

    There are more arguments that this tape is a massive fraud perpetrated on the American public by evil forces we can't possibly comprehend. And there are legitimate questions, mostly pertaining to the alleged presence of Al-Qaeda higher-up Al-Zarqawi. He was allegedly killed months ago. More importantly, he's supposed to have a prosthetic leg, which you would think would make these rigorous physical activities difficult for him (then again, there was that soldier with the prosthetic leg who went jogging with President Bush recently).

    Still, this is the sort of statement you come across when trying to get to the bottom of this mystery: "Arab linguists have said the man posing as Al-Zarqawi did not speak with a Jordanian dialect." What Arab linguists? Can I read their report? Obviously not. That assertion is provided as fact and not backed up. But people read it, believe it, and pass it on. (For example, here's something I got from Jeff Rense's web site: "We have heard native speakers of Arabic tell us that the voice on the tape does not have the accent they would expect from the man who is being blamed." Please, someone tell me where the source for this is!) Then they add their own speculative "could it be?" statements, and then you have the morass I've been wading through for the past couple of days.

    Occam's Razor, in the vernacular, means that the simplest explanation is most often the correct one. When people attempt to ascribe far-reaching implications to things like the Nicholas Berg video, you get lots of arguments based on what isn't there. Because the man who identifies himself as Al-Zarqawi has his face covered, we assume that means it isn't him. Because the speaker's tone is halting and hesitant, we assume he's not a native speaker of Arabic. In every case, the simplest solution is that Nick Berg was killed at the hands of hardline Muslim terrorists.

    Maybe that wasn't Al-Zarqawi. Maybe it was someone who wanted us to think it was. Maybe the speaker was nervous to be reading something on camera - shit, I remember when my college classmates had to read something out loud. They sounded like robots, yet they were native English speakers. There are myriad reasonable explanations, most of which more plausible than those being proffered.

    Any time something like this happens, people search for a way to assert control over the situation. For internet junkies with too much time on their hands, debunking it has become their handle on the horror. Not that I think anything will ever come of the theories and the speculation, whether they're right or wrong. It just saddens me that what people consider independent thought means parroting the anti-party line. You should question everything. But sometimes the real answers are the obvious ones.

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