It's been about 3 months since Michael Berg was kidnapped in Iraq and beheaded by Operatives Of Al-QuedaTM. At the time, those of us who type our fingers to the very bone making up fake news for your amusement, failed to mention, even as a “joke” the incident. Part of the reason is that, clever as we are, we had a hard time getting our heads around such a thing. “C'mon”, we said to ourselves, “it's the goddamn New MillenniumTM for Christ's, or whoever's, sake. Who the hell goes around beheading people, that's so fucking 20th century.”1 The other part is that the editor, when he wasn't engaged in his usual pastime of bitching about the drinks bill, an expense necessary for crapping out such high levels of amusement for you all, said “If you can make beheading funny, then by all means.” If you read through the archives, it's obvious that nobody was up to the challenge. Now, however, thanks to the FBI, (yes you knew that your tax dollars would somehow be at work didn't you speedy?) I'm ready to take a go at it.
Now I can hear you saying “Wait a minute Mercer, what the heck have you been smoking this month. Ok, maybe they got some blowjobs from detainees in Gitmo, but the FBI surely has never beheaded anybody.” A statement that demonstrates, aside from the fact that you are reading this, what a rational, attentive, competent human being you are. No I would never level such a charge at those fine products of Quantico. Although, when I complete my tale of government abuse of privacy and political interference, I think you'll long for the days when the Bureau, as those of us who will shortly have files several pages thick fondly refer to it, was run by a guy who at least tempered his paranoia with cross dressing.
It begins, as befits a tale in which cross dressing is mentioned, in San Francisco. It was there that a minor candidate named Benjamin Vanderford -- or Danforth, or, in Bulgaria at least, Ford -- running for a minor political office named District 5 Supervisor, decided (obviously without the competent advice of a legal samurai like my own Mr. Suntori) to run a campaign ad in which he faked his own beheading by Islamic terrorists. What, exactly, this had to do with running for a city council office, I think is a question for future scholars, but I have to admit that, as a columnist whose drinks are paid for by looking out for hoaxes, I love the guy's style; a lot of political pros could learn a lot from him. I mean let the Bushies trot out a bunch of moldy oldies to yammer about what did or didn't happen during a war that very few of the Bushies actually participated in and then tell me which is a more interesting lie. But even if his claims that the whole thing was an experiment in media “groupthink” are true they are unimportant. What is important is the reaction he got, not from his electorate -- they're just ordinary non-threatening citizens who would be absolutely No-FunTM to write about -- but from the forces for law and order, those “just the facts ma'am” folks at the FBI.
So, it's no wonder the FBI jumped in their little Keystone Kops mobile and hustled a couple of Mulders over to Vanderford's pad.That's right chuckles, for reasons known fully only to themselves, America's domestic spying service became intensely interested in the idea that there was an American citizen in Iraq and they didn't know that he was there. So much so that they sent a couple of agents from the San Francisco Headquarters to interview Vanderford and his fellow collaborators, first expressing, according to Vanderford's comments in the San Jose Mercury News how pleased they were that we was alive, but, in a fashion reminiscent of good old fashioned police work ("You done it, dincha, we know ya done it.") asked whether he had any ties to terrorist networks. Which, to my mind, is a very curious question to ask. Unless, of course, you consider the timing of the Vanderford video.
Here's how the story played out as best the crack addled interns who work for me can piece it together from misc. sources. According to his website2, Vanderford, at various times a video game producer and recording artist, decided to fake his own beheading in order to experiment with the notion that the media follow a herd instinct when it comes to breaking news. If it'd been me I'd have applied for a grant from the Foundation for Discovering the Totally Obvious. Vanderford doesn't mention any benefit the video may have had for his campaign on the website other than the Wilde idea that the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. Vanderford and his buds decided to upload the video to Kazaa and Soulseek in May, where it lay dormant for months until, like a bad case of herpes it sprang forth and infected Big Media. In this case Patient Zero, as reported by the San Francisco Chronicle, was the AP who picked the story up from an Arab language website www.islamic-minbar.com. The Chronicle records an interview with an AP editor who lets us know that Islamic Minbar, despite sounding like something you'd find on Sci-Fi, is known for reliability. Anything found there is good to go and precluded a need to visit Vanderford at the address clearly shown in the video. Of course the AP feed gave the story another stamp of legitimacy and then it was off to the races. After that, the story passed rapidly around the world without a single reporter actually bothering to visit with anyone connected to the apparent victim. Indeed that little step was left, you guessed it, to your friends and mine, the FBI.
Ok, so that's all very keen, but aside from the reference to crack addled interns, it's not very funny. Well stick with me. You see the joke is that aside from being concerned for Vanderford's safety, the FBI was understandably curious about when, exactly, the video was made. If you haven't been paying attention this last week in August you may have missed the little dust-up over the release of information indicating that the FBI interviewed Nicholas Berg while he was incarcerated by the Iraqi police shortly before he was abducted. Imagine their surprise: a week before the FBI's scheduled to be grilled over the Berg case -- when an American they didn't even know was in Iraq turns up beheaded -- Vanderberg announces his video was faked, then says that the video was made back in May when the world learned Berg's fate:
- Berg gets picked up by Iraqi police and is interrogated by the FBI sometime in April 2004
- Refusing a ride out of the country, he then is abducted. His next appearance is around May 4thish when the video is released.
- The Berg video inspires Vanderford who makes his own and then uploads it to Kazaa at the end of May.
- While the Vanderford video is laying around the internet, Bergs father starts investigating what the hell happened to his son and finally gets a meeting with FBI and Defense Department dudes.
- A week before the meeting, Vanderford's video finally surfaces.
(Now if you understand all of this, please e-mail me. After a recent sweep by FBI agents, I need some new interns.)
So, it's no wonder the FBI jumped in their little Keystone Kops mobile and hustled a couple of Mulders over to Vanderford's pad. The WebTM is rife with conspiracy sites claiming that Berg's death was either faked or committed by elements more Western than Al-Queda, and if there's one thing Bush's Iraqi adventure doesn't need it's smartass punks proving that faking video is easy. Hell, rather than investigating him, the Feds should hire Vanderford to help them “find” some WMD.
As if that's not comical enough, in the Chronicle article, FBI SpokesAgent LeRae Quy actually is quoted as saying “It may come down to freedom of speech, and we'll defer to the U.S. attorney's office here on that. The question is: At what point does he step from freedom of expression into something that makes a mockery out of the pain suffered by families that have had beheadings of loved ones?” Odd, I would've thought that the real question is “When did making a mockery out of anything become a crime, and when are the pigs going to show up at IRREVERENT HQ?” Curious about what the Special Agent Quy might actually be saying, we ran the statement through the Legal Mumbo JumbolatorTM and discovered this hidden subtext: “Well if this was Britain we'd do him for wasting police time, as it is, he won't be able to go anywhere near the speed limit in this town again. And I hope his accountant's been diligent at saving tax records.”
So what're the lessons we can learn from Vanderford's little excursion into Wonderland? Well the first is don't go to Iraq without telling the FBI. They have a habit of losing track of people, and it's not nice to scare them by appearing to show up in a country they didn't even know you were in and beheading yourself. The second is never trust the media, except of course your good friends at IRREVERENT. At least you know we're full of shit. Finally, and this will become increasingly clearer to a select group of interns as the random clicks and beeps on their phone lines become more annoying, always use an anonymizer when you're browsing. “You're FiredTM!” Heh, they should be so lucky.
1 Check it dude, archival evidence exists showing beheading as a form of execution favored by Japanese forces occupying Nanking during World War II. Sorry Suntori, guess we'll just take Nagasaki, Hiroshima, and the Prime Minister's Lap and call it even.
2 The website, http://videohoax.ctyme.com/ was intermittently offline but was active as of publication. -Ed.