It's a crusade, George W. Bush said, and then, after even his loyal advisers fell into depression and started coming into work unshaved and still in their pajamas -- he's so much dumber than his dad, they told each other tearfully -- he said it wasn't a crusade, didn't resemble a crusade whatsoever and Don't Mention the Crusades.
Then the U.S. conservative commentator Ann Coulter wrote that the proper response to the terrorists was to "invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity." Her fans began echoing her call to restart the holy war, which was "the right idea" 1,000 years ago and just as darn good now, they said.
She then called her critics "anti-Christian bigots who will jump on you for any mention of Christianity," wrote a second column calling for the domestic use of passports in order to check up on "suspicious-looking swarthy males" and called her editors "girly-boys" for firing her.
Her editor is the son of Lucianne Goldberg, agent to the lovely Linda Tripp. "Ann is Christian, Goldberg is Jewish," one incensed reader responded. "Any questions?"
Well, yes. Crusade, anyone?
Our current political debate, such as it is, has sunk this low: It has become medieval in its terms.
Ever since I read how, in 1201, "they sewed the cross onto a great cotton hat" worn by Henry Dandolo, the Doge of Venice, all things medieval have fascinated me: John Cleese in a chain-mail balaclava, booty (in its original "ill-gotten" sense), dead cows flung from catapults, boiling oil over the parapets, those heart-shaped headdresses and steeple caps (it was an era of silly hats), and jousting tournaments.
Did you know that in the Middle Ages, farm animals could be tried and sentenced for crimes? That the medieval version of "Bomb them into the Stone Age" and "blitzkrieg" is known as "chevauchée?"
It was great fun until I started looking up medieval quotes and seeing current events rushing toward me. The parallels between Bush's call for Operation Infinite Justice (name since changed to Operation Enduring Freedom, which makes freedom sound like a bad marriage) and Pope Urban urging on the faithful on Nov. 27, 1095, are profoundly worrying. The attraction of the Middle Ages is not its retro appeal, but the distance of its lunacy, surely.
Urban was a good communicator, the clever modern historian Marcus Bull writes coolly, and his sermon, "part of a much wider recruitment effort," was seen by contemporaries as a great defining moment with bold images that "tapped into deep-seated emotions."
Polyglot thousands flocked to Urban's cause, from all classes and many nations, for reasons of faith, land-grabbing and loot. Christian Europe, which one historian calls one of the most guilt-ridden societies in history, saw it as a means of expiation.
Muslim aggressors were portrayed as beasts and sex monsters who tied Christians to stakes for archery practice.
The Muslims responded with similar libels. Like Rev. Jerry Falwell blaming abortionists, gays etc., it was all about sex. Medieval Muslims, enraged by the occupation of their lands, said Christian women were unveiled sluts who could be bought by judges for four copper coins a toss. Inflammatory speeches were made in Damascus as throngs of Palestinian refugees wept in the streets.
Dan Rather wasn't reporting on all this; I'm quoting the Bahr al-Rawa'id, a sort of Der Sturmer of the Persian Middle Ages.
If there's one thing that united Christians and Muslims until the 15th century, it was that sex was vile and so were women, sorry, two things, and that Jews should be persecuted en masse, that's three things. I have this sensation that anti-Semitism is about to burst out of its boil again. I look at the face of the brave Shimon Peres and feel dread for his future.
After crunching through medieval texts and coming up with 21st-century quotes, I don't know whether to laugh or cry. The scientist Richard Dawkins said this week that all religions have been a blight on mankind. He's right, and it's nothing new.
If there's one thing Christian fundamentalists, the Republican party, the Taliban, other Islamic extremists, Ann Coulter, Sunera Thobani, George W. Bush, Joe McCarthy, media commentators who demand we all speak "with one voice" and medieval popes can agree on, it's this: The world is a ravishingly simple place, as in Rudolph Giuliani's "We are right and they are wrong." Which means it's a Crusade.
Saying so gets the weaselly Tony Blair called a statesman and Bush called smart, which is a travesty.
How the distressed and the foolish love simplicity. Talk about your fearful symmetry.
My whole life is based on the opposite. I think the world is an intensely complicated place, a mess really, full of a number of things, cabbages and kings, a rich, beautiful, horrible tapestry. I want an end to terrorism, but a new Crusade is a disastrous course. Buckets of innocent blood, gallons of pointless gore, with no end in sight.
Another goddamn millennium, looking amazingly like the first one.