Michael Berg In Parliament Square: A TFT contributor writes
2 July 2004
I wasn't really in the mood for a rally. Particularly not a shouty political rally in Parliament Square. I was a little hungover. A ghastly mizzle of drizzle had begun to fall just as I left the house; just, in fact, as I remembered that the tubes were on strike.
Plus I had weird weeping boils all down my right leg from where I'd been mysteriously savaged in the night and I could barely walk without considerable pain. The last thing I wanted was to stand about outside listening to people bellowing things that I probably already knew. That tends to be the problem with these things - 90% of the time it's a matter of preaching to the converted. Surely I was already as miffed as I possibly could be with Bush and Blair and world events over the last going-on three years?
But my Editor had insisted. "It's TFT's job to go to rallies so our readers don't have to," he said, failing to understand the point of rallies.
One of the guest speakers at this rally was Michael Berg, father of Nick Berg, who of course was brutally and publicly beheaded back in early May. And maybe it was slightly ghoulish on my part but there was something about the fact the this man had suffered what is surely the worst possible imaginable experience that any parent, or indeed any human being, could have to endure - the videotaped assassination of one's own child - that made me want to hear what he had to say.
First up, Andrew Murray of the Stop the War Coalition, who had organised the event, introduced Jeremy Corbin MP. Corbin was followed by Bruce Kent of CND, who was followed in turn by coalition convener Lindsay German. They were all fine speakers, particularly Bruce Kent, who has the air of your best friend's favourite grandfather. Once he had finished demanding that Tony Blair be indicted for various war crimes, including the murder of 11,000 civilians, you almost expected him to distribute Werther's Originals to the crowd.
After which, Michael Berg took to the platform. It seemed odd that the enormous sympathy that everyone clearly feels for him was expressed through applause, but aside from climbing up the platform and hugging the man, there didn't really seem to be any alternative.
He looked well. Which is probably an idiotic thing to say, but part of me was expecting him to be as physically destroyed as I imagined he must have been emotionally and psychologically destroyed by what had happened to his child. But no, he looked well. He looked young, healthy and bright, like a slightly more animated Ian McEwan. Not long after he had started speaking, you realised that not only was he not physically destroyed, but neither had he been beaten inside. Somehow - one imagines primarily through enormous inner strength - Michael Berg had not only survived this atrocity, he had also managed to create something positive from it.
He began by briefly explaining exactly what had happened to his son - the events leading up to his illegal detainment by the FBI, his subsequent disappearance and his eventual murder. He told of how he and his family were treated afterwards; how the press camped outside their house, how the media clammed up and refused to talk about the real reasons behind the tragedy and how George Bush had never even bothered to contact him to offer his sympathies.
Then he spoke of his own reaction to what had happened. And this is where you begin to get a real idea of the yawning chasm between men like George Bush and men like Michael Berg. It would after all have been so easy for Michael Berg to have reacted violently to his son's murder. It would have been so easy for him to have demanded revenge, for him to have screamed 'an eye for an eye' and damned Al Qaeda, Iraq, and the whole of the Middle East.
It would have been easy in short for him to have reacted as George Bush reacted after 9/11 - to have flown into a blind, deaf and dumb rage, lashing out at anyone remotely connected with the pain he had been forced to suffer. It would actually have been a lot easier for Berg. After all, Bush lost no sons in 9/11.
Berg however, has the intelligence and the compassion to want to see beyond his own personal suffering. He has enough humanity to be able to put himself in his enemies' shoes, something that it is difficult to imagine Bush or Blair or anyone who ever supported the war in Iraq doing. Of the continued occupation of Iraq, he said:
"I can imagine what it's like for Iraqis to have to have the American military there. I can imagine what it's like for people who have lost loved ones in Iraq to have the American presence in Iraq.
I can imagine it because I put myself in their place and I ask myself, 'How would I feel if the five men who murdered my son were to move in across the street from me? And how would I feel if every day they went off to work and I knew that their work was murdering and abducting and beheading? And how would I feel if I knew that they went on with that work with impunity, and they would never answer to the consequences?'
That's how I imagine the Iraqi people feel about the American presence in their country."
Again, unlike Bush et al, Berg has the desire to understand *why* such atrocities occur - why America was attacked on 9/11, for example, and why his son was killed. And he understands that the reasons are always the same. It is always tied up with sovereignty. "Sovereignty," he said, "means self-determination; it means freedom from abuse. Isn't that what we want? Isn't that what every one of us wants from the time that we're born practically... I think that's what the people who killed my son wanted, but you won't find many people listening..."
Sovereignty is of course the reason why this evening's event was organised in the first place - to protest at the so-called 'handover of sovereignty', from America to Iraq, which was rushed through two days before it ought have been under a veil of secrecy. As Berg pointed out:
"This bogus transfer of power isn't going to change things. American and British military will still be in Iraq, will still be hated, will still be killed 'Why won't this transfer of power change things?' Because we haven't given Iraqi people, or the people of the Middle East what they want, what all people want: self -determination, sovereignty, freedom from abuse, the same rule book as the rule-makers are subject to. These are the real elements of democracy. Not Bush democracy. We need... to start listening to our enemies and realising that although their methods are wrong, their complaints may be valid..."
After Berg, there were three other speakers, including a rather feisty George Galloway, but really, nothing they could say had the power of Michael Berg's pronouncements.
Berg used to teach English Literature to High School kids. You can imagine from the way he speaks, the passion with which he communicates and the feeling for his fellow man that he clearly demonstrates, that he must have inspired an awful lot of kids.
What he inspired in this contributor was a renewed sense of fighting spirit. Ever since the blindly raging, obscenely self-serving War on Terror began shortly after 9/11, I, like billions of other people, have been inexorably beaten down by the barbaric exploits of the British and American governments, and ever more astonished at their levels of unaccountability. So much so that when I turned up on Wednesday night, I did so on cynical apathetic auto-pilot, expecting to feel as helpless and hopeless at the end of the evening as I did at the beginning. But I didn't. Thanks to the courage, the defiance and the determination of Michael Berg (in circumstances more intensely tragic than any I am ever likely to endure - inshallah), I came away feeling that the battle is far from over.
We can't just roll over and let Bush and Blair et al get away with their atrocities simply because they repeatedly refuse to be held accountable. If we give a damn about the 11,000 Iraqi civilians, the 15,000 conscripted soldiers, the 1000-odd American and British forces who have died since March of last year; if we give a damn about the cancers and deaths from depleted uranium and cluster bombs; if we give a damn about the lies, the faked intelligence, the excuses and the shrugged shoulders, then we have to do something.
Vote, sign petitions, write letters to our MPs and MEPs and the Hague, go to rallies and demonstrations, just make sure our voices and our opinions are heard - even if they don't seem to be listened to. Because if we refuse to give up, just as those that made a positive difference in the past refused to give up, we too can make a positive difference.
Stop the War Coalition: http://www.stopwar.org.uk