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The images we see -- and those we don't

Page 2 of 2 -- Besides, the Kerry campaign has hardly been silent on the prison scandal. It is using it as a fund-raising hook, sending out mass e-mails urging supporters to petition for Donald Rumsfeld's resignation -- and to donate money to the Kerry campaign.

Poor Nick Berg. The anybody-but-Bush crowd isn't going to rush to publicize his terrible fate with anything like the zeal it brought to the abused prisoners story. CBS and The New Yorker couldn't resist the temptation to shove the Abu Ghraib photos into the public domain -- and the rest of the media then made sure the world saw them over and over and over. But when it comes to video and stills of Al Qaeda murderers severing Berg's head with a knife and brandishing it in triumph for the camera, the Fourth Estate is suddenly squeamish.

As I write on Wednesday afternoon, the CBS News website continues to offer a complete "photo essay" of naked Iraqi men being humiliated by Americans in a variety of poses. But the video of Berg's beheading, CBS says, "is too gruesome to show." No other network and no newspaper that I have seen shows the gory pictures, either.

What exactly is the governing rule here? That incendiary images sure to enrage our enemies and get more Americans killed should be published while images that show the world just how evil those enemies really are should be suppressed? Offensive and shocking pictures that undermine the war effort should be played up but offensive and shocking pictures that remind us why we're at war in the first place shouldn't get played at all?

Yes, Virginia, there really is a gaping media double standard. News organizations will shield your tender eyes from the sight of a Berg or a Daniel Pearl being decapitated, or of Sept. 11 victims jumping to their deaths, or of the mangled bodies on the USS Cole, or of Fallujans joyfully mutilating the remains of four lynched US civilians. But they will make sure you don't miss the odious behavior of Americans or American allies, no matter how atypical that misbehavior may be or how determined the US military is to uproot and punish it.

We are at war with a vicious enemy, and propaganda in wartime is a weapon whose consequences can be deadly. Nick Berg lost his life because the Abu Ghraib pictures were turned into a worldwide media event. Yes, those who did so were sheltered by the First Amendment. That makes what they did not better but worse.

Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is jacoby@globe.com. 

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