The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Monday, May 17, 2004  

“I Live in Philadelphia”

We all by now are familiar, too familiar, with the last words of Nicholas Berg, the American executed by Iraqi terrorists in retaliation for the abuses committed at Abu Ghraib prison: “My name is Nick Berg, my father’s name is Michael, my mother’s name is Susan. I have a brother and sister, David and Sarah. I live in . . . Philadelphia.”

After the words truly sink in, the very last four resonant in a surprising way.

“I live in . . . Philadelphia.”

Seems simple enough -- innocuous, even -- but according to local media accounts Berg actually lived in West Whiteland Township, Pa., and his business, Prometheus Methods Tower Service Inc., was located in West Chester, Pa. Both towns are some 35 miles west of Philadelphia.

So why would Berg say he lived in Philadelphia if he didn’t?

Proximity matters, of course, and Philadelphia is much larger and better known than West Whiteland Township and West Chester. Perhaps he was speaking in the casual shorthand we all know and use ourselves.

But maybe Nick Berg was sending a message: to his murderers and to us.

If you’ve watched or heard the video, or seen certain transcripts of Berg’s final words, you’ll notice he pauses slightly before saying “Philadelphia,” as if he thought first of saying West Whiteland or West Chester, only to change his mind at the last moment: “I live in . . . Philadelphia.”

As every schoolchild knows, the city’s name comes from two Greek roots -- phileo, love, and adelpho, brother -- hence the affectionate nickname, the City of Brotherly Love.

Perhaps, just as Berg’s killers prepared to perform their brutal, barbaric, and medieval act, the young man who always carried a copy of the Torah was relaying, in a spiritual sense, where he aspired for all of us to live someday.

[Post-publication addendum (May 20): Sometimes an ellipsis is just an ellipsis. Two readers have sent e-mails informing me that the videotape of the beheading of Nicholas Berg reveals he actually did mention his West Chester domicile before his execution. Although before writing this post I watched the video one time -- something I do not recommend to others -- my memory apparently failed me on this particular point as I read multitudes of media accounts about the tragedy. I presume they are correct; I do not wish to view the video again. Regardless, I apologize for the error, but I hope the general sentiment prompting the post remains valid.]

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