Ludicrous moments from a somber season

Diana West
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Posted: Sep 02, 2003 12:00 AM

One thing about this summer, there was no so-called silly season. There was too much menace, from Iraq to Indonesia to northern Virginia, for the media to muster the enthusiasm to obsessively tally shark attacks, assiduously track global warming, or chronicle even the most vapid celebrity breakups as if they mattered.

But if there was no silly season, there may have been a summertime spike in the ludicrous, from California recall reports of Arianna Huffington's measly $771 two-year federal tax bill (but what did she pay the accountant?) to a Washington Post front-pager parsing the finer points of identity politics -- as in why no self-respecting "Latino" wants to be known as "Hispanic."

Then there were outrages du jour that barely broke the media haze. Maurice Gourdault-Montagne, an advisor to French president Jacques Chirac, offered up this bit of Frenchery about the Bush push for the European Union to outlaw Islamic Jihad and Hamas, two terror groups behind last week's bus bombing in Jerusalem: "If we find that Hamas and Islamic Jihad are indeed terror groups opposed to peace, we may have to change the EU's stand. However, we must not limit ourselves to one, clear-cut, position."

If they are terror groups? If they are opposed to peace? After all the many innocent people Hamas-murdered and Hamas-maimed (ditto for Islamic Jihad) in the name of eradicating Israel from the world map, a bout of sputtering might be the first line of response to such amoral prattle.

Better to sputter, though, than to dodge behind a figleafy distinction between the "military" and "political" wings of Hamas and Co., which the French have done, shunning the former and tolerating the latter.

This week, The Middle East Media Research Institute (www.memri.com) posted an article by Dr. Abd Al-Aziz Al-Rantisi, "The False Holocaust -- the greatest of lies funded by the Zionists," that gives us all a gander at the world according to "political" Hamas. "It is no longer a secret that the Zionists were behind the Nazi's murder of many Jews, and agreed to it, with the aim of intimidating (the Jews) and forcing them to immigrate to Palestine," Al-Rantisi writes -- I mean raves. "Every time they failed to persuade a group of Jews to immigrate to Palestine, they unhesitatingly sentenced them to death." Al-Rantisi also believes the gas chambers of the Third Reich were a myth, but never mind. "When we compare the Zionists to the Nazis," he concludes, "we insult the Nazis."

And when we compare "political Hamas" to political anything, we insult ourselves. This isn't political, it's diabolical -- and in reality, alas, no mere aberration of the summer season. No doubt there's more double-talk in store from the Gourdault-Montagnes of the world, who disguise such anti-Western venom as parlor-ready political discourse, masking their own motives, it seems, in the process. Which is one reason the next entry in the summer memory book -- the obituary of a notable British explorer -- is at least a little different.

Sir Wilfred Thesiger, dead at age 93, was by all accounts the last of his kind when it comes to pre-modern desert exploration. He rode camels here and roughed it there, covering vast stretches of the Arabian Peninsula back when it was still uncharted, even by Standard Oil. His August death prompted suitably lengthy and predictably respectful obits in the British papers, but only Saudi Arabia's Arab News got to the more curious heart of the matter.

According to a fellow explorer, Thesiger was not just an eccentric reactionary opposed to "progress, education and cars" -- odd enough -- he was also "able to travel to fulfill his antipathy to Western values." How's that? Here is an example: After Eton and Oxford, naturally, dear Thesiger trekked around Abyssinia with tribesmen "whose social standing," the Arab News reports, "was measured by the number of men they had killed." From his autobiography, Thesiger is quoted as having written about the experience: "I knew that this moonlight meeting in unknown Africa with a savage potentate who hated Europeans was the realization of my boyhood dreams."

At least the man was forthright about his antipathies, not to mention his dreams. Of course, there are those who dream of a home where the buffalo roam; others who dream of April, or even August, in Paris -- a dream deferred this summer as many Americans, in the travel story of the season, steered clear of France. Which certainly wouldn't have pleased Thesiger much. After all, all those Americans bypassing France look like they're fulfilling their affinity for Western values.