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Witches and Witch Hunts - What the Salem Trials Tell us Today

How do we promote tolerance and protect free speech in a time where organised groups openly, and others clandestinely, exploit our liberal values to oppose our aims, sometimes with the deadliest of means?

Q. What evil Spirit have you familiarity with?

A. None.

Q. Have you made no contract with the Devil?

A. No.

Q. Why do you hurt these children?

The month of March has not been a very lovely month in human history. Famously, on March 15th 44 B.C., the Ides of March, Julius Caesar was assassinated in the Roman Senate, stabbed 23 times by a group of conspirators. It was in March 1968 that American soldiers committed the atrocities in Vietnam that became known as the "My Lai Massacre." It was on March 15th, in the year 1692, that Sarah Good, from whose testimony I quote above, was tried in Salem, Massachusetts for being a witch.

Between March 1692 and May the following year, 19 people--13 women and 6 men--were hanged in Salem for witchcraft. More than 150 people were arrested. Five awaiting trial died in prison. An 81-year-old man named Giles Corey was "pressed" to death under heavy stones when he refused to confess.

What happened in Salem? Among other things, mass hysteria.

On February 25th, 1692 Sarah Good, a destitute and homeless woman, was accused of witchcraft, along with two other women. Sarah was known in the village for going door to door, begging for work and for food. She apparently had the custom, when turned down, of muttering and cursing under her breath. She was said to be dirty, disagreeable and haggard looking, much older than her 39 years. Sarah Good was married, her husband also being poor and homeless, and was pregnant at the time of her arrest.

The trouble for Sarah Good began when two young girls, Abigail Williams and Betty Parris, claimed to be affected by her spells. Both girls would convulse, their eyes rolling back in their heads. They were soon joined by others girls showing the same behaviour. They all accused Sarah of being a witch. The Salem trials became memorialized in Arthur Miller's play, "The Crucible," premiered in New York 30 years ago.

I admire Arthur Miller, the playwright. I'm not fond of all his political judgements, though. Miller wrote "The Crucible" in response to the Communist witch hunts of the early 1950s in the United States. The Republican Senator from Wisconsin Joe McCarthy led the crusade. Decent people, including many an artist and Hollywood actor, had their reputations ruined. There was hysteria. That much is true.

The problem for me, though, is that while there never was such things as witches, there were Communist operatives, a fact Miller, who died in 2005, was always loathe to acknowledge. By Communist operative, I don't mean people of myriad left-wing views, but rather, as we now know from Soviet archives, individuals who maintained secret party membership, who manipulated others, spied, and did the bidding of Stalin's Soviet Union, not infrequently in exchange for gifts or money. Many were dedicated to the violent overthrow of the U.S. government.

Today we have similar debates about anti-Muslim bigotry, fears of smears, and the fight against Islamic terrorism.

One of Britain's biggest mosques, the East London Mosque in Whitechapel, was in the news recently for plans to host a fundraising event in support of Aafia Siddiqui, who is serving 86 years for the attempted murders of US soldiers and FBI agents in Afghanistan. The event, put on by the innocuous sounding Justice for Aafia Coalition, was to include at least one speaker who holds violent, extremist views. Controversy surrounding the event forced organisers to change the venue at the last minute.

Do we have instances of anti-Muslim prejudice today? Yes. Has there been hysteria? Surely not.

What we do have are important and difficult questions that won't go away. Among those questions: How do we promote tolerance and protect free speech in a time where organised groups openly, and others clandestinely, exploit our liberal values to oppose our aims, sometimes with the deadliest of means? Three Birmingham men, said to have been trained in Al Qaeda camps in Pakistan, have just been convicted of plotting UK attacks that would have eclipsed 7/7. The three tricked members of the public into giving them thousands of pounds by masquerading as a Muslim charity.

Salem was a story of religious extremism and intolerance, superstition, jealousy, greed and paranoia. We'll never know for sure what exactly possessed those girls to accuse Sarah Good. One theory is that ergot-infected grain was at least in part to blame, ergot being a fungus, whose symptoms in the affected person include convulsive fits, writhing in pain, delusions and hallucinations.

What is certain is this: witches with supernatural powers don't exist. Serious threats to society sometimes do. Rooting these threats out is necessary. It doesn't make you a crusading zealot to say so. Just as it doesn't make you a wooly liberal to insist that cool heads, hard facts, rationality, and due process always prevail.

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