PHILADELPHIA -- Michael Berg has forgiven his son's killers.
It doesn't mean he's not angry. He still hates their actions. He still wants justice.
What it means, he told an audience not long ago in an Oklahoma City church, is that he doesn't seek vengeance.
"I am a man of peace," he said, although clearly not always at peace. "I beseech others at every opportunity to be the same. I cannot accomplish my goal with hatred in my heart."
It has been a year of searingly painful anniversaries for Berg:
The day his son, Nick, returned to Iraq to repair communications towers.
The day Nick was detained.
The day they last talked.
The day Nick checked out of his Baghdad hotel, telling the clerk, "Inshallah, I'll be back."
And then, that horrific day when the phone rang ...
In an act that shocked the world, Nick had been abducted and beheaded. His body was found May 8, 2004, near a Baghdad highway overpass. Even more unthinkable, his killers posted a ghastly video on the Internet.
But it has also been a year of epiphanies that have both salved the unending ache of Michael Berg's loss and driven his need, his compulsion, perhaps, to act. To speak out.
Just weeks ago, in Oklahoma City, he took part in a 10th-anniversary commemoration of the bombing of the federal building.
Along with survivors of that act of destruction, plus those who had lost family in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, and others affected by acts of terror, he spoke about forgiveness.
He had taken a class at Immaculata University. The brochure came in the mail to his West Chester, Pa., home, and he had flipped through it, looking for an art class.
A single word caught his eye: Forgiveness. The subtitle: "The way to love in a wounded world." Berg knew he had to take that class.
Within the first five minutes, "I began to find words to express things that, up until that time, had just caused turmoil," Berg said.
Now he stood in an Oklahoma church and told the audience he didn't want vengeance. He just wanted the killers "removed from society" -- jailed.
He was surprised when a woman objected. She said warehousing people wasn't right and didn't fix anything. Then and there, Michael Berg began to rethink the matter of justice.
What did he want?
Every day, everywhere, Michael Berg wears his uniform: jeans, an antiwar T-shirt, and the same antiwar button he has worn since the day Nick died. It says, "Stop the War on Iraq."
Virtually every weekend since Nick's death -- he can't bring himself to say "beheaded," so he says "the B word" -- he goes to a peace rally, a vigil, a march.
A retired teacher, now 60, he's been to England, to France, to South Korea. He demonstrated before the national political conventions and at President Bush's inauguration. He was outside Fort Bragg, N.C., on the second anniversary of the Iraq war.
Every Saturday he's not someplace else, he's at the weekly Chester County Peace Movement demonstration at the courthouse in West Chester.
His sign, "P-E-A-C-E" spelled vertically, is the lone remnant of a larger sign he carried more than a decade ago to protest the first Persian Gulf War.
"He's a hero to a lot of us," said the movement's founder, Karen Porter. He has "experienced the tragedy of war in a personal way" and is still able to share with other people.
Always, he meets people, other victims, from whom he can draw inspiration. He now inhabits a circle of people he considers "injured" by war and terrorism -- emotionally, if not bodily.
They speak the same language. They can accept a man's grief: "When we get together, no one's worried about tears."
His wife, Suzanne, and their two children have been adamant about their need to grieve in private. Berg has felt compelled to speak out.
"We of the peace movement are pretty much totally ineffective" as far as stopping the war, he said. But he will keep at it.
"We'll be there when the rest of the world wakes up."
That night in Oklahoma, as Berg thought about the woman's comment about justice, he had an idea.
Many of Berg's friends and family, heartsick and enraged, wanted the ultimate revenge.
Berg never did, "not from the first minute."
Part of him felt guilty, even disloyal or unpatriotic, for that.
But he also thought about how Nick's killers said his death was retaliation for the abuses at Abu Ghraib. If Berg insisted on retaliation himself, wouldn't he be just like them? Wouldn't he be condoning the concept?
"That would say, 'Yeah, you were right to kill Nick.' And I couldn't say that."
In an odd way, Berg even understands the killers' motivation to rid Iraq of Americans. "I understand completely what they want, and I agree ... all Americans out, all Americans out right now."
He notes caustically that they just didn't choose an effective method. Better to look to Mohandas Gandhi or the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. for ideas.
But Berg still needed justice. If not jail, what would it be?
Another Oklahoma speaker was the Rev. Michael Lapsley, who fought apartheid in South Africa. He lost his hands and an eye to a letter bomb. He said he would want the bomber to work in a hospital, caring for people with similar injuries.
Berg was moved. The next day he told a different audience that he'd want the man who killed his son to spend 50 years caring for amputees in Iraqi hospitals. "And the American politicians who are responsible, I would like to see deprived of their power."
Many found his willingness to forgive, his need to forgive, deeply moving, "perhaps the most profound of the entire panel," said the church's priest, the Rev. Luke Back.
"The thing I really like about Michael is he has remained open to new ideas and new ways of dealing with his son's murder," said David Potorti, co-director of September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, who helped organize the Oklahoma events.
It is an evolving process.
Now, a few weeks later, Berg has decided that President Bush, whom he holds ultimately responsible, should run something like an exchange student program, only it would be an "exchange people" program. Every year, families from across America would trade places with families from around the globe.
"We would all get to know each other a lot better," Berg said, "and get to see that we're all the same."
In October, Berg was invited to South Korea. He gave an antiwar speech and then had lunch with the parents of Kim Sun-Il, beheaded in Iraq last June.
Through a translator, they spoke of many things. Eventually, even "gruesome things," Berg almost whispers. "Did you ... did you look at the body?"
Kim Sun-Il's father had.
Michael Berg had not. He couldn't. The horror of the mutilation prevented him.
But as time went on, Berg was pricked by shards of doubt. He kept thinking about that photo -- the one probably every paper in America ran, of the man in the orange suit.
Even though he knew Nick would have changed in captivity, he nevertheless had trouble reconciling that thin, bearded man in the photo with the Nick he knew.
Berg had given Nick's dental records to a courier, but he still had to accept the word of the American military and FBI, which he no longer trusted.
Was it really Nick? Well, of course it was. But then again ...
For Berg, doubt is worse than knowledge. In fact, he figures the worst day of his life wasn't May 10, when he learned of Nick's death. It was May 5, when he felt certain something very horrible had happened, but he feared he'd never know.
Girded by the example of Kim Sun-Il's father, Berg contacted the medical examiner. He wanted to see the photos.
The examiner covered up the portions Berg didn't want to see, and he gazed at Nick's face.
He came away satisfied. "It fixed me," he said, "for a while."
Alas, the doubts returned. And they remain. "I don't know," he says quietly, staring at the floor, "what I'm going to do about that."
© 2005 ContraCostaTimes.com and wire service sources