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Second Opinion

A New York City medical examiner watches the video of Nick Berg’s beheading and wishes he’d looked away.

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I watched the video. It took only a minute or two to find the link; I didn’t hesitate before clicking—I felt I needed to see it. The true nature of this war has been so carefully hidden, every supplied statistic and every image pruned like a prize rosebush. But the slaughter of Nick Berg seemed unspinnable; like the Abu Ghraib images, it was digital information, free to anyone who chose to look.

There was professional curiosity, too: I’m a forensic pathologist, and my everyday responsibility is the dispassionate and meticulous analysis of death. For more than a dozen years, I’ve probed violent or unexpected deaths—homicides, suicides, accidents. I was part of the team that handled the bodies after 9/11, attempting to identify victims and to inform families. I’m particularly interested in drug-related deaths and strangulation, and I’ve been translating a nineteenth-century French monograph on death by decapitation, which had originally been prompted by public concern over the guillotine (an object of controversy since its creation).

Anyway, I watched it. A matchbook-size, low-res image of five masked men in a white room, Nick Berg trussed at their feet. As much for effect as for identification, the tape begins with clips of Berg speaking a bit, talking of his family and his home, humanizing him for the audience before he is murdered. One of the men reads in Arabic for much of the tape, the tension increasing as he plows on and on with his manifesto. He stops, then cries out “God is great!” and they fall on Berg, picking up the refrain, one man dropping to pin Berg as another carves at his neck, all the while shouting “God is great! God is great!” The sound is six or seven seconds out of sync: Berg’s screams begin long before they start cutting, and then there is silence as they lift his severed head and jerkily pan to the pixelated slick of blood around the body.

Of course, it was nothing like a guillotine. The guillotine blade, massive and extremely sharp, cleaved the head off effortlessly, causing instant spinal shock, with complete loss of sensation and immediate death. In the video, the killer uses a large knife to cut through the soft tissues, and then struggles to saw through the ligaments and bones of the neck to separate the head.

Watching, I try to do the math: If someone’s heart stops immediately, he still has about fifteen seconds of consciousness as the brain burns off the last of its oxygen. Maybe, I think, he could have had an air embolus—when the large veins of the neck are cut, air can be sucked into the heart, where it’s whipped into a froth, which forms a vapor lock, and stops the heart from pumping blood. That, I tell myself, would kill him a few seconds faster.

But I know that the notion is a distraction, the possibilities collapsing because you can hear him screaming, and if he’s screaming, his trachea hasn’t been cut through yet, and he’s in pain, and he’s alive, and he’s conscious.

The thing is, when I work, I never think about the pain. It’s all about the structure of the body, the pattern of the injuries. I think about the kinematics of violence as abstractly as an astrophysicist calculates the movement of hypothetical bodies approaching a black hole. But Berg’s murder is a completely different type of killing, one that tears right through the feeble barriers I set up to protect myself.

“Two years after 9/11, the Berg video unearthed emotions I had no desire to feel.”

And despite all that I’ve seen before, no matter how able to handle it I thought myself, I knew immediately that the decision to watch had been a mistake. There was no way for me to step back from the images, to gain distance or perspective. Two years after 9/11, the Berg video unearthed emotions I had no desire to feel: fury, despair, the desire for revenge. I no longer cared about the atrocities committed in Abu Ghraib, the images of which had outraged me the week before. I wanted every man in that little death club captured, torn from their families, and dragged into the darkest basement interrogation room.

I have done pretty badly since 9/11. It took us eight months to do the preliminary recovery work, eight months in which we worked around the clock in shifts, struggling to examine all the remains as well as taking care of the daily autopsy caseload. I thought I was okay afterward, but I wasn’t; I was just crumbling rather quietly. I made it to February 2003 before I really lost it. Nothing exciting: In Chicago for a conference, I found that I couldn’t bring myself to leave my hotel room. When I got back to New York, I started seeing a counselor specializing in post-traumatic-stress disorder. He said to me, “While a lot of soldiers came back from Vietnam with PTSD, not everyone did. But every person who’d been charged with handling the bodies developed PTSD.” I supposed this was what they were saying to everyone to give them permission to grieve.

My life seems to be gradually slipping away from me, or perhaps it’s the other way around—I’m slipping away from it. I’ve become reclusive, rarely seeing my friends. Last year, I broke off my engagement; she deserved better than what I have to offer. I don’t want a new relationship. I communicate mostly by e-mail now, and these days, if my phone rings, it’s probably a junk fax.

Despite all the violence I’d dealt with before, I’d never thought seriously of leaving New York. But the video changed something for me, crushed the necessary buffer between the abstract examination of a dead body and the pain and horror of that death. It left me aching to leave, to run away, to live a purely aesthetic life, a life of quiet sensual contentment. A beautiful, ordered life where my main concerns would be how to look after wisteria, or whether or not a tarte composée needs a glaze, somewhere by a lake, surrounded by mossy woods. And I could leave, really. My one-bedroom apartment is now worth an absurd amount—I could sell, and escape this city, and go somewhere small, somewhere still untouched.

But of course, there isn’t anywhere untouched. I lectured in Des Moines a few months after 9/11; the local TV news had a “Terrorism: Target Iowa” segment. Anywhere I’d go, I’d encounter the same tacitly legislated paranoia, the same dully isolationist groupthink disguised as patriotism.

Predictably, the release of the video has pushed the paranoiacs into high gear, and the footage is rapidly becoming the conspiracy theorists’ newest artifact of choice, like the Magic Bullet and the Zapruder film before it. And I’ve heard that you can download the clip reconfigured as a sing-along.

I can’t speak to the claims that the beheading was faked—I watched it only once, and my emotions got in the way. The autopsy will answer some questions, though likely many of the answers it provides will be rejected by the doubters. But the footage looked real to me. And I’m not going to watch it again, not out of professional interest, not out of any personal compulsion to know. I wish I hadn’t made that choice: to look at something I have managed to avoid seeing, while looking at it every day.


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