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F!RST Person: Michael Berg’s War for Peace

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When some people first meet Michael Berg, they aren’t sure what to say. By now, two years after the tragedy that thrust him into public life, virtually everyone he meets knows about the death of his son, Nick, but “I’m sorry for your loss” seems even less adequate than it usually is.

People whose loved ones have died in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—more than 2,500 and counting—have their own special brand of grief, but even they can’t share the horror that Michael Berg carries.

Nick Berg, of course, was the young independent contractor who traveled to Iraq looking for work building communications towers, only to fall into the hands of terrorists who slaughtered him and released a videotape of the murder on the Internet.

So what can strangers possibly say to a man whose son was not merely killed but beheaded on camera, as a lesson or a warning, to the Western world?

“You’re a traitor,” is fairly common. So is, “You’re a disgrace, capitalizing on the murder of your son like this.” Those with more compassion might opt for “grief crazed” or “insane.”

Berg has grown accustomed to such vilification. “About the mildest thing they call me is naive,” he says.

The criticism has increased in the past year, since Berg decided to run on the Green Party ticket for Delaware’s lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Photograph © by Thom Thompson

Indeed, the cruelty of Americans outraged by the barbarity of terrorists can seem downright barbaric itself. At one Washington peace march, a counter-protester carried a sign with a blow-up of the climax of the infamous execution video, when Nick’s severed head is held aloft by one of his killers—an image Berg has never seen.

“When we saw that,” says Berg’s campaign manager, Jon Atkieson, “we practically gang-tackled him to keep him from catching sight of it.”

Berg, who retired after 28 years of teaching reading in West Chester, Pennsylvania, public schools, moved to Wilmington partly to remove his family from the spotlight of Nick’s death. He joined the Green Party when he applied for a Delaware driver’s license. Though he normally registered as an independent, “I’ve always agreed with [the Green Party’s] positions on peace and social and economic justice,” he says. A couple of months later, party leaders approached him about heading the ticket. He soon agreed.

Running for office hasn’t changed Berg’s routine much. He’s quick to acknowledge that he is first and foremost in favor of ending the war in Iraq, something he would be speaking out about whether he was running for public office or not. He’s adept at detailing the Green Party’s entire platform, but he doesn’t call for renewable energy, single-payer health care and investments in infrastructure with quite the same authority he commands on war.

If anything, his status as a candidate keeps him in Delaware more often than he might be otherwise. He’s as likely to speak at marches and rallies in New York, Washington and points beyond, where his iconic status among protesters who lost relatives in Iraq is second only to Cindy Sheehan’s.

All the major media outlets have his cell phone number, and they all call when events in Iraq remind them of Nick’s death. Berg was a popular interview in June, when an American air strike killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the terrorist widely held responsible for Nick’s beheading.

If Wolf Blitzer thought Berg would express satisfaction at the death of his son’s executioner, he soon learned his mistake. Berg startled audiences by declaring he took no solace in the killing, noting that al-Zarqawi’s family had now joined the Bergs in mourning a needless death. Media outlets typically allowed him a minute or so to express his pacifist views, but most cut the interviews short when Berg contended, as he frequently does, that President Bush, by invading Iraq in a war of choice, is as guilty of terrorism as the Muslim fanatics who killed his son.

Nick’s death didn’t radicalize Michael Berg. He attended his first peace protest more than 40 years ago, while he was an undergraduate at Bucknell University and the war in Vietnam was raging. He didn’t agree with Nick, his youngest child, on President Bush’s goal of freeing the Iraqi people from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein, but he didn’t try to stop him from traveling to the country, which was not yet in the throes of the sectarian violence that defines it today. “He was a grown man,” Berg says. “He had been in Third World situations before, in Africa, and he thought he knew what he was getting into. It was his decision.”

Berg doesn’t look much like Nick. He’s a slightly built, intense man with a wiry frame and graying hair that would be collar-length if he ever wore shirts with collars. Most of the time he wears T-shirts. He’s been a vegetarian for 18 years, and a vegan (he consumes no animal products at all, not even eggs or dairy) for almost a year.

Nick, on the other hand, was built like a bull. “He had no neck,” his father recalls, smiling. He was relentlessly optimistic and had an adolescent’s sense of humor, one frequently expressed in pranks and practical jokes. His skill with electronics and his knack for inventions amazed his friends and family, and he was philanthropic to a fault. Michael Berg calls his son “my hero.”

For all their differences in politics and temperament, Michael Berg, much like his son, isn’t afraid to walk into places most people would consider hostile or forbidding. By prominently criticizing the Bush administration in the process, Berg makes himself a target for the self-styled patriots who can’t resist blasting away whenever he appears on CNN or on talk-radio shows. That’s not just hyperbole; during one Washington peace march, Berg says, a bullet was fired at the bus in which he was riding, missing him by only a few feet.

Little of the criticism fazes Berg, who has honed his arguments in countless exchanges with conservatives on talk-radio shows. Opponents get especially vitriolic when Berg proclaims forgiveness for his son’s killers, but not for President Bush. “We invaded their country,” he notes. “If they would use nonviolent means to achieve their goals, I would walk to the sea with them,” Berg says.

The charge that seems to get the biggest rise out of him is that he is capitalizing on his tragedy, as well as dishonoring the memory of his son (who supported the goal of bringing democracy to Iraq), first by criticizing the American presence there, and now by running for office on a peace platform. “It’s absurd,” Berg says. “Because my son was killed, I should renounce a right open to all other Americans?”

Another conservative position he renounces is the one that claims Nick, who was seeking work for his radio-tower business in Iraq, was therefore a war profiteer. “That’s not what motivated him,” Berg says. “Every time he came home from Africa, he had lost a lot of weight, because he gave away all his food.”

Anyone trying to understand Michael Berg’s reaction to his tragedy would do well to remember that he had only a few hours alone with his grief before Nick’s death became a propaganda football—first as a political statement for the terrorists, then as a rallying point for American patriots.

When Nick’s communications with his family stopped in April 2004, Berg presumed the worst. Days later he learned the condition of his son’s body, but still hadn’t told his wife or two other adult children about it when he, and the world, became aware of the awful truth—that a video purporting to show Nick’s beheading had been posted on the Internet. Thanks to photographers and electronic media, the family’s grief was quickly broadcast around the world.

For a time Berg threw himself into learning as much as he could about Nick’s last days, tracking down people who had seen him, grilling government officials for information, never knowing how much they didn’t know and how much they wouldn’t tell. The conspiracy theories that abound on the Internet further complicate the picture, highlighting mysteries and anomalies that nag at the official story: Why was Nick detained by authorities, and how did he wind up in the hands of terrorists? If he had been released by U.S. authorities, why was he wearing an orange, prison-style jumpsuit in the execution video?

Berg realizes he probably will never know the full story behind Nick’s death, perhaps the only explanation necessary for what drives him to speak out so energetically against the war and the Bush administration.

So maybe the best thing to say to someone in Michael Berg’s situation would be, “I’m sorry your grief turned into a public commodity, and I hope someday you find some answers.”

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