THE videotaped beheading of American citizen Nick Berg by Islamic militants, according to them retribution for American forces' mistreatment of Iraqis at Abu Ghraib prison, drops the level of bestiality in this ongoing horror show to new depths.
Whatever Mr. Berg was doing in Iraq, there is nothing that he could have done that would justify the horrible end that he met. If there is any system of justice operative now in that country, his killers should be brought to trial and suffer the appropriate penalty for their crime.
The death of Mr. Berg and the abuse of the Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib have one thing in common. That is that the victims were entirely under the control of their captors. Mr. Berg was filmed sitting bound and terrified at the feet of those who held him. The naked, terrified Iraqi prisoners were shown lying on the ground with Americans standing over them, menacing them.
Whether it be the strictures of the Geneva Convention on the Treatment of Prisoners of War or the legal code of even Saddam Hussein's Iraq that defines the limits, any prisoner held by anyone in Iraq has a right to treatment according to the rule of law.
But there is a basic difference between the killers who so barbarically ended the life of Mr. Berg and the American uniformed forces and civilians who were involved in the abuse and deaths of some prisoners under their control.
That is that the Americans are supposed to be part of a disciplined force, part of a chain of command responsible all the way up the line to President Bush, and acting according to American rules and standards.
It is no excuse for the Islamic militants - they are basically outlaws and thugs who show no respect for the laws of the Islamic faith to which they pay lip service - but the killers of Mr. Berg don't fall under anyone's authority.
They may be part of the shadowy, ad hoc organization that comprises the Iraqi resistance. They may be distant followers of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. In terms of accountability, however, they are part of no organized state system of government, unlike the Americans at Abu Ghraib.
Adding to America's frustration with these fanatics is the fact that even if they are caught, what sentence, no matter how swift and sure, would in fact punish them? Execution, even as retribution, only makes them martyrs in their brothers' eyes.
Their horrifying murder of Mr. Berg may have been intended to discourage the thousands of American contractors currently swarming around the possible fast, but dangerous, money to be earned in Iraq. If that were the case, it may work.
In the sense of hastening the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq, the death of Nick Berg is unlikely to have any impact on Bush Administration intentions.
But what is stunningly clear is that a significant number of Iraqis do not want the United States in occupation of their country.
What this brutal act, along with the Abu Ghraib prison abuses, will undoubtedly do is serve to increase the anger that millions of Americans feel for what the United States is doing in Iraq and intensify this question: How soon does the Bush Administration wrap up this affair?