In the Middle Ages almost any crime was a capital one. Pickpockets and murderers went to the gallows. skeptics, atheists and infidels were burned at the stake. For crimes that were trivial and crimes that were not, there was a single penalty. Most of the world has abandoned that kind of system. Only in Washington is almost any infraction a hanging crime.

Douglas Ginsburg, named to the Supreme Court in a petulant manner, had to withdraw his nomination when it was revealed that, among other things, he had smoked mari-ju juana. The infraction was dated and hardly serious to begin with, but it did him in. Some 60 million Americans have tried marijuana and occasionally some of them still smoke it. Nevertheless, for this petty act -- worth a modest fine in most states -- Ginsburg lost both a high honor and his reputation. It cannot be said that the punishment fit the crime.

Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) copped a speech, embellished his academic record and once, as a law student, was caught plagiarizing. Plagiarism is a serious matter, but it occurred when Biden was young -- more than two decades ago. Biden's other offenses were committed recently, but they were the petty sins of vanity and pride. At most, they deserved a rebuke. Instead, they chased Biden out of the presidential race. A year of campaigning, the hopes and dreams of the man, ended in a crash. Once again, did the punishment fit the crime?

A similar calamity befell John Sasso, Gov. Michael Dukakis' campaign manager. Having leaked the so-called attack video, which brought down Biden, and having first denied his culpability, he had to quit a campaign that was almost his own creation. The punishment once again was draconian. A man was deprived of his dream and his work.

Some may make a similar argument about Gary Hart, although I think that case is harder to make. Hart's crime to my mind was not alleged adultery, but a refusal to acknowledge that a standard of behavior was expected from him. The public was alert to womanizing, and his campaign workers had a right to expect that their candidate would spend his weekends campaigning. Still, the matter is one not directly connected with governing and, still, a campaign -- a career -- went up in flames. For the offense, Hart was symbolically executed.

Some blame the press for this state of affairs. We are accused of a boorish preoccupation with both the personal and the trivial. There is something to this. But the press rarely leads. And in these cases, it has followed both the political leadership and the public.

Moral and legal absolutes are the currency of Ronald Reagan's conservatives. They have elevated pot smoking into a national menace, refusing to distinguish between marijuana and more dangerous drugs. They have a Prohibition mentality: the social drinker and the lush are condemned with equal vigor.

Somewhat the same situation applies to so-called family values. They are enunciated by some political leaders as absolutes -- a right way, a wrong way and all of it based on a nostalgic vision of an idealized past. Women should stay home, men should work, the unmarried should be chaste, and homosexuals should stay in the closet.

But there's a difference between picking a pocket and taking a life, between smoking pot in youth and sniffing cocaine in adulthood. There's a difference between embellishing a college record and, say, lying about selling arms to Iran. And there is even a difference, as Richard Nixon's example reminds, between cheating on your wife and cheating on your country -- and nary a link between the two.

Secretary of Education William Bennett, appointing himself the moral guardian of the Reagan administration, telephoned Ginsburg and all but ordered him to withdraw his Supreme Court nomination. For Bennett, this kind of absolutism is characteristic. He prescribes chastity as the solution for AIDS and teen-age pregnancy -- a standard so unrealistic the only outcome can be hypocrisy. The same is true for drugs. By accepting an appointment, poor Ginsburg joined a church in which skepticism is heresy and absolutism has been raised to theological levels. Bennett held him to an impossible standard in which a trivial transgression warranted the maximum penalty.

A hallmark of a civilized society is precisely what some doctrinaire conservatives abhor -- moral tolerance. But egged on by Grand Inquisitors of the conservative movement such as Bennett, and cheered by a public that's had its senses dulled by mindless nostrums, Washington is turning downright medieval.