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This week on Wanted: Dead of Alive! Return of the Old Man!

'Josh Randall is hired by the U.S. Government to travel to Afghanistan and.......'

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, September 19, 2001.

The nation and its President struggle to find a reasonable and effective mythological template for us to use during our war on terrorism. He finds solace, like President Reagan, in the Old West, and recently trotted out the "Wanted: Dead or Alive" concept which he thinks is emblematic of the western code, although it is a very British Royal mandate and only rarely appeared on American railroad outlaw posters, and then in questionable legality. (In America, it has always been illegal to shoot someone on sight, technically, absent a badge and warrant in your pocket and no immediate threat.) It was a television show about a bounty hunter played by Steve McQueen in the 1950's, which is about the extent of President Bush's history overview.

Given our success for a war on drugs, a war on terrorism does not inspire and is hampered by many of the same problems. We are beginning to pay a penalty for improper use of words, which mean such different things to different people. Activist, terrorist, socialist, communist, feminist, patriot. Pick any four people and ask them to define those words. Do any two agree on all? On any word? To an Afghan peasant peering at fighter jets, the term terrorist means much else than to a startled desk worker at the World Trade Center whose last view is of an approaching jetliner. I am not struggling for equivalency here; I am saying we need to use words consistently and accurately.

However, Bush, a posturing idiot, is not just wrong when he seeks a bounty hunter ethic; he is an imbecile when he chooses the word 'crusade.'

Crusade is the west's jihad: a holy war. It cooks off every neuron of self-preservation that the Islamic world possesses, and the image was not helped by a Ms. Coulter, the allegedly leggy blonde and conservative television commentator who recently stated the solution is to conquer and convert the Middle East to Christianity. This, no doubt, failed to throb hearts in Israel as well. Then, the famously stupid Jerry Falwell announced on Pat Robertson's show that abortionists bore responsibility for the attack on the World Trade Center. The good news is that the fanatical and hypocritical Christian right revealed its true agenda, colors, and intelligence as well as grace deficiencies under dainty pressure.

And if a bunch of desert rats sound pretentious rattling on about a jihad against a west whose power is inconceivable to them, the term crusade used by Bush is equally stupid and pretentious. For one thing, it is a lousy template because, ahem, the west lost all the crusades except for very temporary victories. The victories were designated by provisional residence in Jerusalem and neighborhood, constantly under siege by guerrilla fighters and assassins.

Hassanben-Sabah, the sheik Al Jebal, and founder of the sect called the Assassins, was a Shiite nobleman who bears an unfortunate and remarkable resemblance to the very current Osama Bin Laden. He and his successors were called the Old Man of the Mountain. Although Bin Laden is a militant Sunni, not a Shiite, like his fourteenth century template he remains aloof and sends others to do his biddings. The term assassin comes from hashish, the potent herb the Old Man apparently stoked his minions upon before spinning them by the shoulders and sending them forth to kill rivals and invaders to arguable success. And although the mountain range may vary from those in the Levant to the Caucasus to, perhaps, the Himalayas or even the Bitterroots of Montana, the image of an old, bitter man sending out sexually frustrated, futureless, homicidal young men with promises of Paradise to come is very strong and very true. It happens. Substitute terrorist for assassin and the image is perfect.

The image is terrifying in truth, because all expeditions against the Old Man failed, because the crusades failed, not least because of the infighting between the participants, and because the goal of the crusades was greedy, hypocritical, unsustainable, and pointless. I cannot imagine this is not the reassuring image held by educated Muslims as they listen to the West posture.

Unsaid through all this are the two horrible arguments to come; will the West, if success in this war fizzles and expenses mount, turn tail and abandon Israel to its fate? Israel, no idiot and hardly about to assess fifty years of support for two thousand of pogrom, has prepared itself with nuclear weapons against this contingency. And then an even worse argument. Would much be different if Israel never existed? I do not think so. I think Israel is a convenient point of conflict that delays the Islamic world, especially that in the Middle East, from having to explain its consistently inferior status in the family of nations to its participants, so contrary in spirit to the Koran's implications. Islam has proven a great excuse for patriarchal, feudal, and grotesque social inequities, and a world that does not entertain internal dissent. I would not want my nieces living in an Islamic world as currently imaged, or a world in which any religion held sway over the ideals of the Enlightenment. I doubt many of you do either.