The Witch hunt:
An American Tradition
Off with their heads! Burn them up! We need to cleanse our community of good people from the malevolent designs of the wicked! Yes, people! We are at a critical point in the history of our great nation — and our very existence is threatened by the Godless in our midst! We must, and we will root out the evil doers by any means necessary…and when I say any means necessary, I call upon the good citizens of this land to be vigilant — to keep their eyes on anyone who might seem suspicious, for they hide amongst us, friends and neighbors — yes they do.
Although this sentiment may seem a bit over the top, this is exactly the atmosphere that pervaded the town of Salem, Massachusetts during the period known as the Salem Witch Hunts…What? Did you think I was talking about something else? And it is also exactly the same atmosphere that again occurred in the midst of the dark period in American History known as the McCarthy era — a time in which the newly emerging hysteria over the spread of Communism began to spread to unimaginable proportions.
Perhaps one of the best accounts of both historical events is found within Arthur Miller’s 1953 play, The Crucible, written in the height of the McCarthy period. At the time of its writing, the United States was entering into a period that is now described virtually universally as “dark.” In it, a feeling of general threat pervaded the country — a threat, it was believed, in which Communists inside the United States would threaten the national security of the nation (today known as the “Homeland”). Further, the government sought to convey a sense of urgency and fear, seeking to galvanize public opinion in favor of the immense spending that would support the new “Cold War”
Against the terrorist…oops, I mean Communist threat.
During this time, the author Arthur Miller, like many individuals within the nation, began to view the hysteria over the Red Menace with contempt. Indeed people like Miller grew increasingly alarmed as American Communists and many non-Communists, alike began to be demonized as traitors — and as such, subject to unconstitutional searches, curtailing of free speech, and other restrictions on their ideological freedom. As a response, Miller wrote The Crucible, about the Salem Witch Trials in the 17th Century as a parable for what was going on around him.
In the story, Miller goes to great lengths to show just how far mass hysteria will take a community — both to the detriment of the object of fear, as well as those who seek to destroy it. Indeed, the audience sees just how far otherwise “good” people will allow fear to destroy, or in the case of this story, even kill. We also see how a community can be fractured by creating an atmosphere of surveillance, informants, and judgment.
Specifically, in the story, the audience can clearly see the parallels between the character Reverend Parris, whose job it is to whip up fear, hatred, and frenzy in the community, and Senator McCarthy, whose role in 1950’s America was clearly similar. Indeed, under McCarthy anyone coming close to the Communist Party line, or anyone appearing remotely “different” ideologically from the administration was subject to Congressional Hearings on “Un-American” behavior, loyalty programs, and blacklists. In short, whereas the unfortunate “witches” in The Crucible were executed literally, the “witches” of the McCarthy era were executed socially, economically, and ideologically.
Interestingly, in hindsight audiences can view both the events in the fictional Crucible with contempt, as well as the excesses of the McCarthy era, seeing the same dynamics in current circumstances seems to be a bit more difficult for most Americans. After all, the powers that were in 17th century Salem were hardly different from those in the 1950’s — at least in their methods. But, what of today?
One must ask themselves, is there a difference between the witches of The Crucible, the Communists of the McCarthy era, or the terrorists of today? Is there a difference between buoying the support for a long and expensive Cold War with fears of a “Red Menace,” and buoying support for a questionable war based on unfounded assertions? Is there a difference between finding Arthur Miller “guilty of beliefs in Communism” in the House of and refusing to let Cat Stevens, the famous singer of the song “Peace Train” into the country because of his links to terrorism?
Perhaps the best way to step out of the “frenzied masses” is to attempt to experience today’s atmosphere from the perspective of one of the millions of possible “evil doers” living amongst us today. Try, if you will, to imagine just what is going through their heads as they sit behind a soccer-mom’s minivan in traffic, gazing at the American flag proudly pasted on her back window. Does it mean simple patriotism?
Or imagine living as a person who can be held without charge, council, or contact with family members on the slightest sliver of rumor, innuendo, or information passed on by suspicious, patriotic, and “good” neighbors? Imagine how it feels to know that you are in all likelihood living in a home with wiretaps, internet surveillance, and the fear that in the next terrorist attack your neighbors just might decide to take a few pot shots through your daughter’s bedroom window for a little revenge?
Yes, the good people of Salem sought to protect themselves from the evil of witchery…The good people of the McCarthy era sought to protect themselves from the treat of communism, and today the good people seek to protect themselves from the “evil doers in their midst.” In hindsight we now know that both threats were if not exaggerated, blatantly false. One has to wonder if the atmosphere of today will one day be judged the same.
Schrecker, Ellen. Communism and National Security: The Menace Emerges. Boston, St. Martin’s Press, 1994.
Miller, Arthur. The Crucible. New York, Penguin. 2003.