Posts Tagged ‘Witch Hunts’

Witch hunting then and now

June 14, 2018

Puritans in 17th century New England believed that Satan was real and ever present.  To doubt that the devil was a clear and present danger was an indication that you yourself were under the influence of the devil.

In 1692, in and around Salem, Massachusetts, many people, mostly women, were accused of being witches.  Nineteen were executed and six more died awaiting trial.

If you were accused of being a witch, the way to save your life was to confess your sin and accuse other people of being witches.

The great playwright, Arthur Miller, saw a parallel with the search for hidden Communists in his own time, and wrote The Curcible, which was staged in 1953, in order to bring this out.   I read this play as part of a monthly play-reading group hosted by my friend Walter Uhrman.

The events of the play did not follow the exact historical record, but Miller did a good job of depicting the Puritan culture and attitudes, especially its pervasive sense of sin and guilt.

Possibly the central character, John Procter, like the Thomas More character in A Man for All Seasons, was more concerned with his individual integrity, like a 20th century person, and less with salvation a 17th century Puritan would have been.

Miller did not explicitly draw a parallel with events of his own time, but the parallel was there to see.  Intellectuals and other public figures accused of being Communists or former Communists were blacklisted if they refused to confess or name others, just like accused witches in 1692 Salem.

His play drew the ire of the government.  He was denied a passport to view the opening of the play in London in 1954.  When he applied for a passport renewal in 1956, he was subpoened to testify before the House un-American Activities Committee.  He readily told about his own past political activities, but refused to testify about anybody else.

He was charged with contempt of Congress, and a federal judge sentenced him to a fine and prison term, but his conviction was overturned on appeal in 1958.

The same syndrome of accusation, confession and new accusations, but on a larger and more lethal scale, operated in the Soviet purge trials in the 1930s and in the Spanish Inquisition.  There were many witch trials.  An estimated 40,000 to 60,000 people were executed for witchcraft from the 14th through the 18th centuries.

In the 1990s, many Americans were caught up in a literal witch hunt.  Satanic cults were thought to be a real menace, and innocent people went to prison on false charges of abusing children in Satanic rituals.

Today the threat to basic civil liberties in the United States is greater than it was in the 1950s, although it doesn’t involve rituals of confession and naming names as in the Salem witch trials or the Congressional investigations of the 1950s.  In that sense, The Crucible is yesterday’s news.


Witch hunts and child sexual abuse

August 24, 2012

I recently stumbled on an striking guest post on The Agitator web log by William L. Anderson, a citizen-journalist who takes it upon himself to look into abuses of civil liberty in sex crime accusations.  Here are some highlights.

People of our present era like to believe that they are sophisticated, intelligent, and incapable of engaging in the kind of witch hunts that made Salem, Massachusetts, famous, yet in the past 30 years American law enforcement and prosecutors have pursued what only could be described as witch hunts, as they have railroaded innocent people into prison for crimes that clearly have not occurred.  There are the more famous witch hunts, such as the McMartin and Kern County cases in California, the Little Rascals Case in North Carolina, the Grant Snowden case in Florida, the witch hunt of Wenatchee, Washington, and many more.

In each of these cases, people have been accused of the most sordid and horrible kinds of child molestation, from outright rape to shoving swords into the rectums of children (and, amazingly, leaving absolutely no trace of injury), cooking babies in microwave ovens, engaging in Satanic rituals in the middle of the day at day care centers, throwing children into shark-infested waters, and more.  We would like to think that there at least would be some physical or corroborating evidence for such actions, but these “crimes” were pursued even though nothing seemed changed about the children.

Anderson pointed out that none of the prosecutors in such cases suffered in their careers for wrongful conviction of the innocent.

… One only has to think of Janet Reno, Ed Jaegels, Scott Harshbarger (who prosecuted the notorious Fells Acres Case in Massachusetts), and Gary A. Riesen, the Chelan County, Washington, district attorney who was re-elected until his retirement last year by voters despite his “witch hunt” prosecutions.  Reno rode her wrongful convictions to the position of U.S. Attorney General, Jaegels has been a conservative icon in California, and Harshbarger rose to prominence in national Democratic Party circles.

Nancy Lamb, who pursued the Little Rascals Case — the most expensive criminal case in the history of North Carolina — was lionized in the media and even now, according to North Carolina’s Judicial District 1 website, remains as a prosecutor who “specializes in child abuse.”  In all of these cases, the individual prosecutors benefited from prosecuting innocent people. None had to face lawsuits, and none were brought up before their various state bars for discipline.

Their actions wasted millions of dollars, destroyed individual lives and families, and unnecessarily created real victims.  None paid anything resembling a personal price. Likewise, those employed by the various Child Protective Services agencies and the Children’s Advocacy Centers — all of which were created by federal legislation — are immune from lawsuits and face almost no legal scrutiny for their aggressive questioning that literally demands that children “disclose” abuse, even when the children being questioned vociferously deny that any abuse even happened.

via The Agitator

\We as a society are still paralyzed by fear of child sexual abuse, and of being accused of sexual abuse.  School teachers and Sunday school teachers dare not take a crying child into their arms to comfort them, lest they be accused of inappropriate touching.  These  days parents fear to let their children out of their sight because of the pedophile menace.

Recently a man I know was falsely accused of sexual abuse of a child, based on a report of something that had happened 10 years before.   The case dragged out for two years—was once dismissed, then was reinstated and finally has been dismissed again.  He refused a plea bargain because he was innocent.  Yet in the process he lost his house, went heavily into debt and might have been forced to plead guilty in return for no prison time if friends hadn’t chipped in to pay for his defense.

On the other hand, people affiliated with powerful institutions—certain Roman Catholic dioceses or Pennsylvania State University—have molested children for years and gotten away with it for years.

Sexual abuse of children is something that we should deal with as any other crime, by making judgments based on reason and evidence, regardless of the status of the accuser or accused.

Click on Costs and Benefits of Modern “Sex Crime” Witch Hunts for Anderson’s complete post on Radley Balko’s The Agitator web log.

Click on Day-care sex-abuse hysteria for Wikipedia’s roundup of the more notorious false accusations of child sexual abuse of the late 1980s and the 1990s.

Click on Looking at the Evidence Tonya Craft Acquitted: Prosecutorial Misconduct, Judicial Misconduct and Did Grudges Lead to Child Molestation Witch Hunt? for reports on Tonya Craft, a Georgia kindergarten teacher who was falsely accused of molesting three pre-school girls.

Click on Why the Mainstream Media Never Learns Any Lessons of History and “Bleed ‘Em, Plead ‘Em and Lie for reports on the ongoing case of Robert Adams, headmaster of a private school in California.

Click on William L. Anderson for his web log.

IWilliam L. Anderson’s day job is professor of economics at Frostburg State University in western Maryland.  It’s a small world.  My parents met there as students in the 1920s, when it was Maryland Normal School No. 2.