The murderers changed the subject yesterday.

Just when the frenzy over American mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners was spinning out of control, we got a reminder of what we're up against.

The pictures (with the really bad stuff still to be released, we're told) of prisoners being sexually humiliated and led around with dog leashes has shaken the Bush administration to its core. But the videotaped beheading of an American contractor, posted on what's being called an "al-Qaeda-linked Web site," is something else entirely: The calling card of brutal killers who delight in murdering innocents, as the world learned anew on 9/11.

Suddenly, everything was put into perspective.

(Did the networks have to play the gruesome video, except for the final act, thus handing the terrorists the propaganda victory they wanted? A still shot, a snippet, and a description wouldn't have been enough?)

If this was an old-fashioned propaganda war, this sickening decapitation tape would never have been released, since it trumps a story that was making the United States look very bad. But these killers don't care about that, or apparently about human life itself. So they've succeeded in making the American abuses--for which the president has apologized, and which is being investigated, and courts-martial convened--small by comparison.

This comes as "60 Minutes II" prepares tonight to show video of a young American soldier saying she doesn't care that two Iraqi prisoners have died--which otherwise would have been the day's big story.

Instead, it's all about what New York Post headlines are calling "savages" and "barbarians."

There is already an undercurrent out there that the media are at fault for publicizing these pictures--that they whipped up a storm, embarrassed America and perhaps led to yesterday's killing. Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, for example, says he is "outraged" by the press on this matter.

All of which, of course, ignores the fact that journalists didn't abuse prisoners, or take the pictures. Or that the perpetrators of Sept. 11 don't need a pretext or provocation to murder civilians.

On the Hill, meanwhile, the scandal is still being unraveled, as the Los Angeles Times | http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/iraq/la-051104hearing_lat,1,524621.story?coll=la-home-headlines reports:

"The Army general who investigated the abuse of Iraqis by U.S. guards at the Abu Ghraib prison told a Senate hearing today the misconduct resulted from a failure of leadership, a lack of discipline, 'no training whatsoever' and no supervision.

"In his first public statements since delivering the 53-page report detailing sexual abuse and other humiliations dished out to the prisoners, Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba said of the soldiers responsible for the abuse: 'Their incomprehensible acts have seriously maligned and impugned the work of thousands of other troops in Iraq and brought into question the reputation of the United States.'"

The New York Times | http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/iraq/la-051104hearing_lat,1,524621.story?coll=la-home-headlines goes with a more contentious lead:

"The Army general who first investigated abuses at Abu Ghraib prison stood by his inquiry's finding that military police officers should not have been involved in conditioning Iraqi detainees for interrogation, even as a senior Pentagon civilian sitting next to him at a Senate hearing on Tuesday disputed that conclusion.

"The officer, Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that it had been against the Army's doctrine for another Army general to recommend last summer that military guards 'set the conditions' to help Army intelligence officers extract information from prisoners. He also said an order last November from the top American officer in Iraq effectively put the prison guards under the command of the intelligence unit there.

"But the civilian official, Stephen A. Cambone, the under secretary of defense for intelligence, contradicted the general. He said that the military police and the military intelligence unit at the prison needed to work closely to gain as much intelligence as possible from Iraqi prisoners to prevent attacks against American soldiers."

Josh Marshall | http://talkingpointsmemo.com/ deconstructs the Red Cross report:

"Over recent days we've gotten accustomed, I think, to an escalating rate of shame and outrage each day. It just keeps getting worse and worse. With such heightened, or as the case may be, lowered expectations, I think it's possible to read the report and conclude it's not quite as bad as one might have expected. But in the process of not being quite as bad as one might expect, it actually deals a pretty devastating blow to any claim that the infamous pictures are examples of low-level jailers run amok.

"In brief, the report argues that many innocents were arrested in dragnet type operations. Initial arrests were often rough and frightening to the people whose houses were broken into. And the military had no good system of notification for the families of detainees. This resulted, as the report terms it, 'in the de facto "disappearance" of the arrestee for weeks or even months until contact was finally made.'

"The sense I got from the report was that this was as much as anything a matter of disorganization and poor planning. Still, the net effect was to have people's family members simply disappear with no idea of what had happened to them for weeks or even months."

Heads up: We're now in Round Two (or is it Round Three?) of Kerry-looks-to-be-in-trouble pieces, a trend I wrote about on Monday. The Philadelphia Inquirer | http://www.philly.com/mld/inquirer/news/nation/8643822.htm?ERIGHTS=3159992614603057611philly::kurtzh@washpost.com&KRD_RM=8ooxoovrwquwrwtrpqrooooooo | Howard | Y&is_rd=Y wonders where he is on Iraq:

"The war in Iraq threatens to spiral out of control, the prisoner-abuse scandal keeps getting worse, a civilian from the Philadelphia suburbs has been beheaded in retaliation - yet John Kerry is devoting his week to the issue of health-care premiums.

"President Bush has been battered over the last month by a string of setbacks, many of which have arguably undercut the moral and strategic premises of the war itself - yet Kerry's poll numbers have barely moved. Gallup even says that in the days since the scandal blew open, Kerry's support among likely voters has actually dropped a couple of points.

"These developments have triggered low-grade panic among Bush-bashers. They talk about Kerry the way local fans fault the Phillies for playing only .500 ball. The Kerry-watchers want their guy to seize the moment, pound the opposition, hammer Iraq day and night, and act like a commander-in-chief."

The counterargument, of course, is that if Kerry hits too hard on the prisoner issue he'll be hammered for politicizing the issue.

USA Today | http://www.usatoday.com/news/politicselections/nation/president/2004-05-11-kerry-usat_x.htm invokes the dreaded Letterman ridicule:

"Democrats following the presidential campaign are divided into two factions these days: people who are frustrated that John Kerry isn't crushing President Bush in polls, and people who say Kerry is in great shape compared to past challengers.

"'Gas prices are up, the stock market is down, Iraq is a mess, and John Kerry is saying to himself, "How am I going to beat this guy?"' David Letterman joked Monday night on CBS, summing up the sentiments of the first group.

"Kerry's team says it's amazing that he's tied with a wartime president after a $60 million ad campaign against him."

Another peek at the finances of the ketchup heiress, as the Boston Globe | http://www.boston.com/news/politics/president/kerry/articles/2004/05/12/heinz_kerry_paid_750000_in_taxes/ notes:

"Teresa Heinz Kerry paid $750,000 in federal, state, and local income taxes last year, roughly 14.7 percent of the $5.1 million in income she received primarily from tax-exempt interest accrued on her vast bond holdings, Senator John F. Kerry's presidential campaign announced in a statement yesterday."

Fourteen point seven percent! Hey, I'd like to pay fourteen point seven percent. Where do I sign up?

"Heinz Kerry has steadfastly refused to release her tax returns since she and the Massachusetts lawmaker married in 1995, pointing instead to the phonebook-size financial disclosure report she files with the Senate as part of her husband's ethics compliance process. The reports have detailed a vast array of stocks and bonds, but not specifically her income. Her overall wealth has been estimated at more than $500 million."

Author-to-be Bill Clinton takes issue with his successor, says this AP dispatch:

"President Bush wasted international sympathy for the U.S. after the 2001 terrorist attacks by shifting from the search for Osama bin Laden to the ousting of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, former President Clinton said Tuesday.

"The move alienated many U.S. allies and created a false impression among Americans that Saddam had a key role in the al-Qaeda-engineered terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Mr. Clinton said.

"'I think the world was really pulling for us after 9-11,' he said, but the Bush administration 'divided the world .. to pursue our vision -- not because of any imminent threat but because that's what they wanted to do.'"

Time | http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,634638,00.html has unearthed a delicious little memo:

"It's not exactly every day that the Pentagon warns military personnel to stay away from Fox News. But that's exactly what some hopeful soul at the Department of Defense instructed, in a memo intended to forbid Pentagon staff reading a copy of the Taguba report detailing abuse of detainees at prisons in Iraq that had been posted at the Fox News web site.

"An e-mail to Pentagon staff marked 'URGENT IT (Information Technology) BULLETIN: Taguba Report' orders employees not to read or download the Taguba report at Fox News, on the grounds that the document is classified. It also orders them not to discuss the matter with friends or family members. The emailed memo was leaked to TIME by a senior U.S. civilian official in Baghdad, who did not hide his disdain for the 'factotums' in the Pentagon.

" 'I do wonder how incredibly stupid some people in the Pentagon are,' he emailed TIME. 'Not only are they drawing everyone's attention to the report -- and where it can be seen -- but attempting to muzzle people never works.'"

Salon's Farhad Manjoo | http://www.salon.com/tech/feature/2004/05/12/beheading_video/index.html says cameras have changed everything:

"With virtually everyone in Iraq armed with the capability to both photographically document and broadcast anything that occurs in the country, the Bush administration can forget about controlling the pictures that come to us from the battlefield. This can't be good news for the White House and the Pentagon, because the lesson of Vietnam, say photojournalists and historians, is that more than anything else, it's images that turn the public against a war.

"We were never supposed to see the pictures that are now pouring out of Iraq. If the government had had its way, as it did in the initial weeks and months of the fight, we would only have seen what a few handpicked journalists -- those famous embeds -- were allowed to show us. We would not have seen dead soldiers returning, or dead civilians on the battlefield, or our own civilians being held at the mercy of the shadowy enemy. And never under any circumstances would we be shown pictures of our side torturing the people we were claiming to have liberated.

"What's ironic about the pictures we're seeing now is that journalists had nothing to do with them."

But it's about more than cameras. With so many detainees having been rounded up, there are lots of potential witnesses out there, and the New York Times | http://www.nytimes.com/2004/05/12/international/asia/12AFGH.html?hp finds one:

"A former Afghan police colonel gave a graphic account in an interview this week of being subjected to beating, kicking, sleep deprivation, taunts and sexual abuse during about 40 days he spent in American custody in Afghanistan last summer. He also said he had been repeatedly photographed, often while naked.

"'I swear to God, those photos shown on television of the prison in Iraq -- those things happened to me as well,' the former officer, Sayed Nabi Siddiqui, 47, said in the interview on Sunday at his home in the village of Sheikho, on the edge of the eastern town of Gardez.

"His account could not be independently verified, but members of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission accompanied a reporter during the interview and said his story matched the one given to them last fall, shortly after his release and long before the abuse at the Abu Ghraib near Baghdad came to light."

Back to politics: Is Bush's much-remarked-upon approval rating of 46 percent in the latest Gallup bad news? The New Republic's Ryan Lizza | http://www.tnr.com/blog/campaignjournal runs the numbers:

"How does Bush compare to his predecessors? At this point in their losing reelection campaigns, Jimmy Carter was at 43 percent in the Gallup poll, and George H.W. Bush was at 42 percent. Their numbers kept sinking right up to Election Day. However, in their winning campaigns, Ronald Reagan was at 54 percent at this point, and Bill Clinton was at 55 percent. Neither of them ever dipped below 52 percent from May onward.

"Bush is looking less like Reagan and Clinton and more like Carter and Bush Senior every day."

But is Kerry looking like Clinton or Dukakis?