The smell of blood is thick in the air. This has been a shocking couple of weeks; first came the photographs showing the humiliation of Iraqi prisoners at the hands of American troops in what was the heart of Saddam Hussein’s vast prison gulag, then we saw the videotaped beheading of a young American by terrorists in Iraq, which shocked the world. In addition, as if not content with being part of the continual backdrop to violence, Palestinian militants pushed their way onto the world’s television screens with a grisly display of body parts of six Israeli soldiers killed when their armored personnel carrier was blown up in the Gaza strip. Since the murder and mutilation of four American mercenaries in the Iraqi city of Fallujah on March 31, which happened to be filmed by an Associated Press cameraman, it is as if a taboo has been broken. Just as the September 11 attacks set the standard for terrorists in their pursuit of ever greater mayhem, so did Fallujah create a template for the visual exploitation of horror. When, a month later, on May 1, Saudi Arabian terrorists killed five Western employees of an oil company in the city of Yanbu, they dragged the body of one victim behind a car, calling on people to see what they had «done to the American,» witnesses said. It is not as if this tactic was thought of recently. Cutting off heads to terrorize the enemy and embolden your own side is as old as mankind. But we have entered a new era – not because we kill and are killed, but in the way that this becomes known across the world. And it is not as if the great pioneers of the new era have not tried this method before. When in February 2002 an Al Qaeda unit murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, it put the video of his beheading on the Internet. But the world was not ready for such horror, and the images remained out of the public realm. Only ghouls could choose to look for it. That was a time of innocence. Last month, when an Iraqi group executed an Italian security guard, one of four it had kidnapped, Al Jazeera was sent the video of the murder. The channel said the footage was too gruesome to broadcast, as its critics said it did not want to show the killers’ cruelty. But when the most horrendous of all these incidents, the murder of Nick Berg, was posted on the Internet on Tuesday, parts of it were soon on almost every news website, on television screens and on the next day’s front pages. Parts of the video may have been blurred in the presentation to the public, but Berg’s screams, his murder and his severed head held high for the camera were all too clear. For most of the world’s citizens, who have not seen even a sheep or a chicken slaughtered, it was excruciating and sickening. Which raises the question, why was it shown? It’s clear why Al Qaeda would want this – that’s why it videotaped the murder in the first place. It wants to show both its friends and enemies how determined it is, how it is in the lead in the fight against the «Crusaders.» It also wants to frighten the civilian populations of the countries which have troops in Iraq as to what they can expect. It knows that an American defeat will depend on the mobilization of the largest possible number of Iraqis against the occupation, or, failing that, a civil war that would make the country ungovernable. It knows also that it is impossible to defeat America militarily. The US forces will leave only when their job is done or civilians call them back home. And that is why increasingly horrific – and well-publicized – acts of terrorism are Al Qaeda’s best weapon. That is why the unfortunate, talented and probably immensely likeable Nick Berg was sacrificed. The stakes are huge, apart from the importance of Iraq’s fate as a country. A defeat for America would strengthen Al Qaeda’s standing as a giant-slayer and heir of the mujahedin who defeated the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Also, having lost Afghanistan, Al Qaeda would be very happy to find another failed state in which to base at least part of its operations. And, with America losing heart, how will other nations defend themselves against any group of people who have the technological ability and media savvy to spread mass terror? This is what many feared when they saw George W. Bush rushing into war in Iraq without having managed to create an overwhelming military alliance or securing the international legitimacy that would make the war’s outcome as predictable as any such adventure can ever be. There was a very real fear that jettisoning the international crisis-solving apparatus that had worked so well since World War II – the United Nations and notions of national sovereignty and defensive wars – would leave the world a far more dangerous place. And then, the more idealistic feared that if the United States, for whatever reason, withdrew into a period of isolationism there would be no dominant force in the world to keep a semblance of order. This, the fear was, could have opened the gate to a «free for all» among nations without rules or referees, in which the powerful would gain and the weak lose. Some warned also that once it found itself on a colonial adventure, the United States would have to act like an occupying power, something that would force it to take action and, in the end, to dance to the tune of the occupied and destroy its national narrative as a force of good, of liberation and democracy. Not only would the United States be master of Iraq, but Iraq would be master of America’s fate. What was difficult to predict was how utterly devoid of planning the post-invasion period would be. The sacking of Baghdad – and the rest of the country – was a devastating and incontrovertible sign that there was no plan. From there, one could begin to fear that the lack of a plan plus a minimal number of troops for such a big country would challenge the occupying forces to the full, increasing the threat of a breakdown of law and order, and of a breakdown in the process of getting Iraqis to take over their country again in an orderly way. Over the past two months, some of the worst fears have been confirmed. But until recently, what seemed most unlikely was that there would be a breakdown within the well-oiled and superb machine that is the US military. The photographs of the brutalizing of Iraqi prisoners in the Abu Ghraib prison which hit our screens and pages over the past two weeks put an end to that illusion. To be fair, so far what we know is that members of a reservist unit of military police got their kicks out of having sex with each other and beating up, threatening and humiliating Iraqi prisoners – all this while taking photographs of themselves and their charges. Lawyers for some of those facing investigation or courts martial say that they were acting on the orders of military intelligence or officers higher in the chain of command, who allegedly told them to soften up prisoners for investigation. Also, the International Committee for the Red Cross says that there was «a pattern and a system» of abuse and this had been going on for a long time. There are also questions as to the fate of 25 prisoners who died in US military prisons, from Iraq to Afghanistan. All of this is the kind of stuff that raises questions about the training and supervision of troops (the general who investigated said there was none of either in this case) and the problems surrounding the unprecedented lack of due process in the system that the US administration has devised to deal with suspects in its «war on terrorism.» When America chose to play with institutions such as its own legal system, it risked letting the genie out of the bottle. But it could not have expected that its own pride and joy, the military, would allow it to lose the moral high ground. This has placed prisoners in every corner of the world in jeopardy. If the United States can do this, so can we, every regime will say. Judging from what members of the US Congress said on Wednesday after seeing hundreds more photographs, the troops in question photographed themselves having sex as well as their abuse and sexual humiliation of prisoners. It was as if the digital cameras that they held had drawn them inexorably into the pit of depravity that is pornography on the Internet. «It looked as if someone was trying to put together a porno movie or something,» said one of the members of the congressional committee which was shown hundreds more photographs. It was as if the language that many in the West speak is the language of sexual exploitation. It is just a click away and seductive as a succulent mouse to reptilian appetites. When this mentality comes into contact with another – such as the sexual modesty prized by Muslims – the stronger will try to impose its values on the other and, like a schoolyard bully, be entertained by the result. The slaughter of Nick Berg by his captors is the most extreme example of the imbalance between a prisoner and those who hold his fate in their hands. The most unpredictable force in all this, one that can light up the darkest recesses of the most secure prison, that can record the sight and sounds of a life taken by a knife, that can send a superpower reeling, is that of the digital camera. Through it, we are all hooked up to the great electronic river that is the modern equivalent of the one up which Joseph Conrad’s hero Marlow sailed to discover the heart of darkness. The river is in our homes and we appear to be drifting upstream to horrors we do not dare to imagine.