Benumbed By Beheadings?

This is a image made from a video posted Tuesday, May 11, 2004 on an Islamic militant Web site affiliated with al Qaeda showing a man who identified himself as Nick Berg, a U.S contractor whose body was found on a highway overpass in Baghdad on Saturday. AP /APTN

This Against the Grain commentary was written by CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer.

It seems that it's no longer automatic front page news when an American is beheaded on camera by terrorists.

Jack Hensley was the second American to suffer that hideous fate this week. The story ran on page 21 of The Washington Post on Wednesday. The New York Times played it on page 7 and USA Today on page 10.

Yes, most television news shows and online news sites did lead with what happened to Jack Hensley and, the day before, Eugene Armstrong. But the attention to the story, the amount of coverage and the audience interest did not come close to the riveted focus on the beheading of Nicholas Berg in early May.

What to make of this? Are we already numbed to this new variation on terrorism that we just learned about a few months ago? Worse, is it simply old news – oh yeah, another beheading? More charitably, are we just too sensitive to look at the gruesomeness again and be appalled all over again?

In the spring, the pictures of Abu Ghraib and Nicholas Berg consumed us. Abu Ghraib obviously involved profound disillusionment about our own conduct and moral standing. It was a scandal, a crime and we processed it by investigations, hearings and trials.

But Berg's grisly slaughter was a different matter and harder to process. Our interest was more than morbid curiosity and outrage; we needed to understand something about this new image of horror. So we learned all about how there is a tradition of beheading in the Muslim world, it wasn't just a new shock tactic. We learned that 52 men and one woman were decapitated by the Saudi Arabian government in 2003 for crimes such as homosexuality, murder, armed robbery and drug trafficking.

The Berg beheading revealed for many the sheer personal, hands-on primitive sadism and blood-soaked lunacy of Islamic terror. The emotional effect was nearly as strong as watching planes flying into buildings, but different. One scholar of Islam called it an "escalation of horror."

At the time, there was a great deal of wise discussion about how these shocking pictures broke through a veneer of distance and unreality for Americans about the war in Iraq. Somehow these vivid, cruel images pushed emotional buttons that months of combat footage, magnificently reported newspaper stories and grieving mothers hadn't yet. The pictures were the tipping point.

Polls seemed to show this was the case. A CBS News poll conducted after Nicholas Berg's murder showed Americans at their lowest point in their feelings about how things in Iraq were going; just 37 percent thought it was going well, 60 percent poorly.

That poll also put approval of President Bush's handling of the war at an all-time low: 34 percent approved, 61 percent disapproved.

A tipping point? Well, no.

According to a brand new CBS news poll, conducted this week when two more Americans were beheaded and 300 Iraqis have been killed, the president's approval ratings have largely returned to pre-Abu Ghraib, pre-Berg levels; 45 percent approve, 50 don't. And Americans are somewhat more optimistic about how things are going in Iraq than they were in May, despite the new atrocities, the violence of the past few weeks and the death toll of U.S. troops passing 1,000.

And now we find that videotaped atrocities don't have the impact they did just four months ago. What was a current events trauma has become almost routine news in a short time.

And I really don't have any idea why. Maybe I'm making too much of it because I felt a duty to force myself to look at these videos and I really cannot process them.

Perhaps we're just too preoccupied with the presidential elections. And it's not like there's really anything to be done about beheadings except try to catch the bad guys; it's not an "issue" with policy implications that you can argue about. The images make some people feel more like we should get out of Iraq and others that we should prosecute the war on terror with even more firepower.

Maybe it's because we suffer from what I call news bulimia; news consumers gorge on one story, 24/7, minutely, obsessively and they purge it, they're down, enough, never again, no más.

Or maybe we are just getting numb.

But without sounding too pompous, it is worth noting one of the great lessons of the 20th century: averting our eyes from evil is easy and perilous.


Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is the Editorial Director of CBSNews.com, based in Washington.

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By Dick Meyer
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