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JEFF JACOBY

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

THE DEATH of Nicholas Berg is a horror. It is a bitter reminder of why we are at war -- something that much of America's political and media elite, in their binge of outrage and apology over the Abu Ghraib abuses, have lately seemed all too willing to forget.

I don't for a moment minimize the awfulness of what some American soldiers did to their Iraqi captives in that prison. Their offenses may have fallen far short of the savagery that Abu Ghraib was notorious for under Saddam Hussein, but in their cruelty and urge to humiliate and in the sadistic glee with which they posed for those photographs, they reek of the depravity we went to Iraq to uproot. As one who believes that this war was necessary above all on moral grounds, I'm sickened by what they did.

But I'm sickened as well by the relish with which this scandal is being exploited by those who think that the defeat of the Bush administration is an end that justifies just about any means. I'm sickened by the recklessness of the media, which relentlessly flogged the graphic images from Abu Ghraib, giving them an in-your-face prominence that couldn't help but exaggerate their impact. And I'm sickened by the thought of how much damage this feeding frenzy may have done to the war effort.

We do remember the war effort, don't we? Surely we haven't forgotten the jetliners smashing into the twin towers and Pentagon, and 3,000 innocents dying in a single morning. Or the monstrous Saddam, who filled mass graves to bursting, invaded two neighboring countries, and avidly sought weapons of mass destruction. Or the reason why 130,000 US soldiers are on the line in Iraq: because establishing a democratic beachhead in the Middle East is critical to cutting off the terrorists' oxygen -- the backing they get from dictatorial regimes.

My sense is that the public hasn't lost sight of any of this. But for weeks now, a goodly swath of the chattering class has been treating the war as little more than a rhetorical backdrop against which to score political points or increase market share.

Newsweek's Eleanor Clift, for instance, reacted to the Abu Ghraib revelations with a column urging the Democratic presidential candidate to milk the moment for all it was worth. "If ever there was a moment for John Kerry to come out swinging, this is it," she wrote. "It is the biggest story of the war, and he is essentially silent." There are many thoughtful things one might say about Abu Ghraib, but only someone eager for the US campaign in Iraq to fail and George W. Bush to be defeated could possibly describe it as "the biggest story of the war."

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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