Friday, May 14, 2004

Nick Berg of West Chester

"A tragic situation exists precisely when virtue does not triumph but when it is still felt that man is nobler than the forces which destroy him." [George Orwell, "Shooting an Elephant," 1950]

West Chester, Pennsylvania, my hometown, is in the world's headlines again. Nick Berg, the young contractor who went to Iraq to do good and was brutally murdered by Islamist terror-thugs, was from there.

I saw the "West Chester" reference in the first news story about him. But as soon as I saw a picture of the house his family still lived in, I knew it wasn't West Chester borough, but one of the suburban townships, West Whiteland or West Goshen, probably. By the looks of it, they lived near where I grew up: all the houses out there were built about the same time. Tonight I finally looked up Michael Berg in an old West Chester phone book; the address is so close to my old home I could have biked there in two minutes when I was 9.

I recognize other scenes, too, and though I don't know the Bergs, I know many others who have come up with this story, such as Andy Dinniman, the amiable Democratic county commissioner who has been one of the spokesmen for the family. Flo Miller, the school district spokeswoman, is a former co-worker. I remember Mike Carroll, the West Goshen police chief, from my days as a cop reporter. I even know the people behind the bylines on the Knight-Ridder stories, old Inky hands like Kathy Brady, Reid Kanaley, Tom Infield.

The fact that someone from West Chester could be at the center of a firestorm doesn't surprise me. Like Bob Shoemaker, my old boss at the West Chester "Daily Local News" used to say, "If there's a bullet to be caught anywhere in the world, someone from Chester County will be there to take it."

Yet this one is different. The county hasn't had so much world attention since another fomer boss of mine, Dave Warner, decided to run pet obituaries in the newspaper.

The sorrowing father says Bush and Rumsfeld killed his son. I'm not going to blame a man in the depths of an unimaginable grief. I am going to blame the people who keep sticking microphones in his face.

Chester County is one of the very "red" counties on the map. It's got a thumping Republican majority, so that even middle-of-the-road Democrats, who actually want to get elected rather than simply railing at the government, tend to become Republicans. The hard-core stays out in the rain. (Dinniman is an exception, but he only gets elected because state law mandates all three commisioners can't be from the same party, which effectively sets aside one job for the minority party.) In that environment, the virulence of the Bush-hating faction can flourish untempered in the Democratic culture. On the car in the driveway of the Berg home is a bumper sticker with a red slash through a "W" and the slogan, "Let's not elect him in 2004, either."

Yet this father, who is of the age of the '60s youth movement, taught his son to think and to make his own choices. And the son grew up to see a world that could be made better, even by Americans. Among those who sent the family condolences this week were Kenyan tribesmen young Berg had helped improve their village. He went to Iraq with the same vision: to bring democracy and a good life to people who knew little of either.

He supported the war, for humanitarian reasons. This, more than any accident of geography, is what makes me feel identified with him.

In the Vietnam War, the old held that American power was a force for good and believed in the spread of freedom as a patriotic virtue. Their children spit bile at the administration. In this war, the natural order is reversed. And the war itself, we can only hope, is fought with more wisdom, and more vision, than was Vietnam. I hope this for the sake of the growing list of men and women who have given their lives believing that it is so.