Andrew Sullivan — and lots and lots of readers — chastise me for this assertion in today’s column: “Well, CBS’ scoop has gotten someone killed and there will be more deaths, on both sides, as a result of this story before it becomes history.”
Let me say a couple things. As I said yesterday the news about the Berg execution came in after I’d sent off my original column. I thought there was no way to run that column without mentioning such a monumental development in the story. So I quickly revised it. I stand by that column and my assertions, but if I had to do it over again I would have written the above sentence a bit differently. I take Andrew’s point that these thugs were murdering Americans long before these photos came out and I agree that the thrust of much of the coverage is outrageous to the extent it makes it sound like the Abu Ghraib abuses turned Zarqawi & Co. into murderers. They were murderers before and they would be if none of this ever happened at Abu Ghraib. I wasn’t clear on the fact that they had held Berg hostage for as long as they did. And one would have to be very naive to believe that Berg’s chances of survival were not already slim once they kidnapped him.
All of that said, the release of these videos created the incentives and opportunity for Berg’s assassination. Moreover, my larger point still stands. The release of those photos caused more damage than they did good and it is almost impossible to believe that more Iraqis and Americans will not die because of them. The irony — if the reporting we’re hearing is accurate — is that the Berg beheading may be having the opposite effect in Iraq. I’m not sure I trust all of the reports quoting Iraqis saying how horrified they are, but if that’s true it does demonstrate once again how unintended consequences are the most predictable consequences when people try to shape public opinion with horrifying images. And no, that is not an attempt to draq anything like moral equivalence between “60 Minutes” and al Qaeda. The former made a mistake, the latter committed murder (many times).
Note: I cleaned up a couple typos in the original post.