In 1209, Pope Innocent III decided it was time to crack down on followers of a religious sect that had become popular in Southern France.
Originally called Albigensians, they came to be more widely known as the Cathars.
Cathars were Christians. But they rejected the authority of the pope and other key aspects of Catholicism, so they were deemed heretics by the Catholic Church.
This apparently didn’t matter much to most people living in the French town of Beziers. Catholics and Cathars had lived there together for many years in relative harmony.
On July 22, 1209, they were celebrating the annual Feast of Mary Magdalene together, a religious holiday observed by various Christian religions.
Suddenly, the festivities were cut short when an army of “Crusaders” sent by Pope Innocent III showed up outside the walls of the town.
The military leader of the army was Simon de Montfort, a French nobleman highly motivated by the pope’s promise that he could keep the land of any heretics he killed.
The Crusaders were accompanied by an official representative of the pope, a French Cistercian monk named Arnaud Amalric (also variously referred to as Arnald Amalric and Arnauld-Amaury).
De Montfort demanded that the leaders of Beziers turn over the town’s Cathar heretics to him. They refused. The Crusaders attacked.
According to accounts written decades later, as the attack began, a soldier asked Amalric how they would be able to tell which Beziers townspeople were Catholics and which were Cathars.
Amalric supposedly answered (in French): “Kill them all. God will recognize his own.”
Some sources give the alleged quote as “Kill them all, for the Lord knows his own” or as “Kill them all. The Lord knows his own.”
It eventually came to be most commonly paraphrased as “Kill them all and let God sort them out.”
It’s questionable whether Almaric actually said anything like those words. But there’s no question that they reflect what happened that day.
De Montfort’s army killed virtually every man, woman and child in the town — estimated to be as many as 20,000 people — and burned Beziers to the ground.
The Beziers Massacre was just one of the first of many atrocities that occurred during the Albigensian Crusades. Over the next four decades, roughly a million more people were killed during those bloody religious conflicts.
Amalric’s infamous quotation was updated during the Vietnam War, when the saying “Kill ‘em all, let God sort ‘em out” became popular among American special forces troops.
This “witticism” was put on unofficial military patches, pins and t-shirts that are now sold as “collectibles” on eBay.
More recently, American troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan updated the saying again in the form: “Kill ‘em all. Let Allah sort ‘em out.”
T-shirts with that variation are now being sold online by the SEAL Team Gear store.
It’s disconcerting to think about otherwise pious Christians or heroic Americans blithely killing innocent people in the name of religion, or Cold war politics, or the “war on terror.”
And, some people view it as controversial or politically incorrect to talk about it.
But, as they used to say in ‘Nam — there it is.
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