This article appeared originally at americanchronicle.com on July 23rd, 2007
From the fifteenth century to the nineteenth century, people were accused of witchcraft, put on trial and sentenced to death if found guilty. These proceedings were often barbaric and one sided. The accused never stood a chance. Torture was used to obtain confessions. Trickery was used to obtain witnesses. Convictions resulted in death sentences, but sometimes the interrogation led to death. The trials were nothing but theatre, a farcical sideshow to convince the masses that there was some semblance of justice to these state sponsored murders. The vast majority of these “witches”, these victims of the state, were women. Some men were also accused, but usually the victim was a witch and not a warlock. There are many reasons given for why these atrocities happened, but I have my own ideas. Historians would have us believe that way back when people believed in witches and warlocks and were ignorant of the sciences and what actually made our world work. To an extent, this is true. The general masses of people living at the time had little or no access to education. They believed in a living devil, demons and possessions and attributed all the evils of the world to these things. But there were men of science both in and out of the church that knew different. They refused to teach the common man the truth. Why? Power. Control. These are the things that such men coveted. Knowledge is power. To teach the people of various illnesses and of other sciences would be to relinquish a certain amount of control. To perpetuate these myths, and in doing so the injustices imparted upon those accused of being witches, was to maintain power and dominion over the populace. It was these injustices and persecutions, along with many others, that helped propel people across the Atlantic Ocean to a new world where they could live free of tyranny.
Ahh, but it was not to be. A group of Protestant Church members who themselves had been persecuted in Europe found passage across the Atlantic and settled in the new English colonies in an attempt to escape said persecution. They came to the new world and began their own communities. Before too long they were struggling in a dangerous world where they could be besieged by natives, or their crops could fail, or a severe winter could wipe them out. But survive they did and by the late seventeenth century they had well established settlements and a well defined political structure. It was at this time that they started a little persecution of their own. It started when an illness or some sort of seizures were suffered by two young female relatives of a minister. The minister and the town physician decided a witch’s curse was to blame for these afflictions. At first only three women were accused of witchcraft, these being a slave woman owned by the family, an impoverished single woman and an old woman who was not well liked by the townsfolk. These three people were easy targets because they were undesirable, but the episode didn’t end with their deaths and eventually led to the Salem witch hunt which ended up costing 20 people their lives, including fourteen women and six men, and resulted in the incarceration of an estimated 175-200 others. Most of the confessions used at the trials of these people were coerced through torture. Most of the witnesses were young children, females, who were easily manipulated. Many of the men who were caught up in this turmoil were merely trying to defend the women. When they spoke out against the injustices being perpetrated against their wives or another family member they were quickly also accused and incarcerated with no evidence other than the fact that they questioned those in power. Soon people began to realize that anyone could be accused of being a witch, not just the undesirables, but that didn’t really seem to matter. A frenzy ensued in which the properties of those who were accused of being witches were forfeited as well as the properties of those who were convicted. It seems that these people were concerned with more than just stopping witchcraft. There were profits to be made from all the hubbub. All of a sudden there was more involved than just protecting the public from these very dangerous witches and warlocks who could cast their spells upon their unwitting victims, there was money, power and control to be had.
There have been many explanations proffered to explain why these events took place in Salem Massachusetts. I’ve heard everything from the Puritans truly believing witches existed in league with the devil to fungus growing on the wheat they ate which had a hallucinogenic affect on the populace and made them believe they were actually seeing witchcraft in action. I believe these men were educated enough to realize that witches and magic were not instruments of the devil, but that they were myths to be used to control the populace through fear. I also believe that these men knew when an opportunity arose and how to take full advantage of it. Furthermore, once the ball had started rolling, it became difficult for them to back down or admit that they had made a mistake and that witchcraft was a myth. It took the establishment of a superior court about a year later to put an end to the madness by releasing most of those who had been arrested due to the fact that their arrests had been based on “spectral” evidence.
Thank goodness we have progressed past such thinking. Thank goodness we no longer punish people based on myth. It’s a good thing that we no longer are scared little children shaking in our shoes and easily misled by fear. Take the terrorists, for example. We are holding many of them all over the world. I’m sure we have a great deal of physical evidence that we can present to a jury so that they’d find them guilty. That’s why we don’t hold them for too long without a trial. That’s why we give them an open, fair public trial which everyone can see and hear, we are that certain they are in fact terrorists and not some farmer that some of our allies picked up for money or some other poor schmoo that might have been defending his home and/or family. We, being morally superior and having learned our lessons from past experiences, would never resort to torture to extract a confession from one of these prisoners. We are not so fearful of these people as to think they could magically conjure up some spell or summon some devil to possess us and perhaps make us destroy ourselves. We are not so fearful as to beg our government to take away our rights so they can protect us from these monsters. We would never execute an innocent person like they did in Salem over three hundred years ago. We have grown beyond that.
Well, perhaps I am a bit mistaken about the terrorists, but we would never treat our own citizens with such distain. Take, for example, sex offenders. Can you think of a more despicable, detestable, disgusting crime? How can anyone take such advantage of a child? How can anyone do such a thing to a helpless woman? And of course we would never convict an innocent person. A child could never lie or be manipulated to lie or misinterpret an event. We would never use any sort of psychological coercion to extract a confession from one of our citizens. We would never threaten someone with more jail time and certain financial ruin if they didn’t take a plea deal. We would never assume one was guilty and make them prove their innocence in a court of law. We would never entrap anyone. We would never convict some kid who was having consensual sex with another kid. We would never convict some little kid for a sex offense because he decides to do something childish. We could never become so frightened of these men as to banish them from our society. We would never force entire families to move from their home simply because it was situated too close to some sanctified location. We would never punish an entire family like that because of what one of their relatives did. We could never believe myths such as that a man is unable to be “cured” of a condition, that a human being is unable to change. We could never pass laws and regulations that would under normal circumstances be considered unconstitutional and declare them legal simply because we are so afraid that some old men have some sort of magical power to be able to entice young ladies to their beds. We are far more understanding than that. We realize that some people may under certain circumstances do something they wouldn’t normally do. We understand that a man may make a one time mistake. We have learned to take these things into consideration when prosecuting them and understand it is best to let a learned judge make an assessment of all aspects of the entire case and make a determination as to appropriate punishment or restitution. We have learned to balance justice with the law, retribution with fairness. We would never let hysteria dictate to us that a one size fits all punishment is fair and appropriate. We left that kind of thinking behind long ago when our founding fathers wrote the constitution protecting us all from the tyranny of government. We left that kind of thinking behind three hundred years ago when we realized just how unjust we were for executing witches.
Am I not right?
Perhaps we haven’t progressed as far as we think we have.