Born on March 3, 1945 in Philadelphia, Michael Berg has been a committed pacifist and antiwar activist since 1965, when he participated in protests against the Vietnam War. After earning a teaching certificate and a BA in English literature from Bucknell University in 1967 and a master’s degree in education from Temple University in 1969, he embarked on a career as a high-school teacher in Pennsylvania. But Berg is best known for being the father of the late Nicholas Berg, a 26-year-old telecommunications contractor who, while working in Iraq in May 2004, was abducted and beheaded by al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
Although his son was murdered by an Islamic terrorist, Berg held the Bush administration ultimately responsible for the young man’s death. “My son died for the sins of George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld,” Berg said shortly afterward. “This [Bush] administration did this.” “It’s the whole Patriot Act,” Berg elaborated. “It’s the whole feeling in this country that rights don’t matter any more because there are terrorists about. Well, in my opinion ‘terrorist’ is just another word like ‘communist’ or ‘witch,’ and it’s a witch hunt….”
In a letter he sent to be read at a May 2004 antiwar demonstration in London, Berg wrote: “[E]ven more than those murderers who took my son’s life, I can’t stand those [i.e., the Bush administration] who sit and make policies to end lives and break the lives of the still living.” In addition, Berg said he was “sure” that his son’s murderers “came to admire him” prior to executing him, and thus, “when they did the awful thing they did, they weren’t quite as into it as they might have been.”
Asserting that the Bush administration’s military response to the 9/11 attacks was horribly misguided, Berg said: “[W]e should have done then what we never did before: Stop speaking to the people we labeled our enemies and start listening to them. Stop giving preconditions to our peaceful coexistence on this small planet, and start honoring and respecting every human’s need to live free and autonomously, to truly respect the sovereignty of every state whether it be Israel, or Palestine, or Iraq. To stop making up rules by which others must live—and then separate rules for ourselves.”
In March 2004, Berg was a signatory to an International ANSWER statement calling for an end to “colonial occupation from Iraq to Palestine and everywhere.” In August of that year, the New York University student chapter of the National Lawyers Guild presented him with its Courageous Resister Award, for “demanding an end to all violence in [Iraq] and around the world.”
When American troops eventually killed al-Zarqawi in June 2006, CNN reporter Soledad O’Brien asked Berg how he felt. “Well,” he replied, “my reaction is I’m sorry whenever any human being dies. Zarqawi is a human being.” O’Brien then asked, “At some point, one would think, is there a moment when you say, ‘I’m glad he’s dead, the man who killed my son’?” “No,” said Berg. “How can a human being be glad that another human being is dead?” “I think the news of the loss of any human being is a tragedy,” Berg said on another occasion. “I think al-Zarqawi’s death is a double tragedy. His death will incite a new wave of revenge. George Bush and al-Zarqawi are two men who believe in revenge.”
In Berg’s estimation, President Bush was “more of a terrorist than Zarqawi.” “Zarqawi felt my son’s breath on his hand as held the knife against his throat,” Berg explained. “Zarqawi had to look in his eyes when he did it. George Bush sits there glassy-eyed in his office with pieces of paper and condemns people to death. That to me is a real terrorist.” There were times, in fact, when Berg speculated that perhaps his son had been executed by the U.S. government: “I’m not even certain that al-Zarqawi even killed my son.”
When radio broadcaster Michael Medved asked Berg whether, in a hypothetical situation, he might have tried to kill Zarqawi as the terrorist was about to behead his son, Berg replied that he instead would have thrown his own body in front of the knife. Berg also said that he would have favored “restorative justice” for Zarqawi, and expressed his belief that working in a hospital for injured children could have transformed the terrorist into “a decent human being.”
A staunch supporter of the antiwar group Voters for Peace (VFP), Berg in 2006 urged his backers to sign a VFP pledge advocating opposition to any “candidate for Congress or President who does not make a speedy end to the war in Iraq, and preventing any future war of aggression, a public position in his or her campaign.”
Berg himself entered the world of politics in January 2006, when he relocated to Delaware and ran on the Green Party ticket for that state’s lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. His antiwar platform called for the immediate withdrawal of all U.S. military forces from the Middle East, and an end to America’s “immoral efforts in Iraq.” “Other than stopping this war, I have no political ambitions,” Berg said of his campaign, which was endorsed by Gold Star Families for Peace founder Cindy Sheehan and Global Exchange founder Medea Benjamin. Berg’s platform also advocated a “living wage to every man and woman”; the implementation of universal, government-funded healthcare; and a reversal of “some of the most repressive social policies since the British ruled us as colonies.” On election day, Berg received just 1.8% of the vote.
By Ben Johnson
May 17, 2004