Historian Norman Cohn describes his work in both The Pursuit of the Millenium and Europe’s Inner Demons, as “concerned with the same phenomenon—the urge to purify the world through the annihilation of some category of human beings imagined as agents of corruption and incarnations of evil.”1 In Servants of Satan: The Age of the Witch Hunts, historian Joseph Klaits notes that “we are not dealing with obsolete issues when we consider such problems as the roots of intolerance, manifestations of prejudice against women and minorities, the use of torture by authoritarian rulers, and attempts by religious or political ideologues to impose their values on society.”2 And early in the text of The Enemy Within: 2,000 Years of Witch-Hunting in the Western World, historian John Demos is careful to note that “Witch-hunting, large as it is, belongs to a still more capacious terrain that also includes racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism, as well as pogroms, lynchings, genocide and ethnic cleansing.”3
It is a “capacious terrain” indeed, to which we must add classism (and to which we might also add other, more specific manifestations of various isms above). Classism and racism, for example, help to explain much of the popular support, in the U.S., for illogical and counterproductive ideological “wars” such as the “War on Drugs” as well as its younger sibling, the “War on Terror.” Classism and racism also account for prejudice and injustice inherent in the present condition of the United States legal system–indeed its entire apparatus and mechanics, from legislation to enforcement to adjudication to incarceration–not only in regard to “enemy combatants” in the aforementioned “wars,” but, in general, to poor or minority defendants.
Though I will, on occasion, allude to “these matters”—legislation such as the Patriot Act and the legalization of torture; or statistics such as non-violent offenses accounting for 2/3 of those persons incarcerated in U.S., or African-Americans being subjected to disproportionate numbers for arrests, convictions, and sentencing; or prosecutors receiving up to 30 times the funding received by public defenders—a comprehensive review of the failings of both “wars,” along with the failings of “special military commissions” (versus courts martial) as well as civilian courts, is, unfortunately, beyond the scope of the present work.4
Likewise, the larger mechanism of what is often called “othering”—which I’ll define rather simplistically as drawing a distinction between “us” and “them” and finding, always, that “they” are inferior—is also too large for the present work. At all times in all cultures, various groups of people have made violent and murderous distinctions between their group and “others,” for reasons such as differences in appearance or language. The phenomenon is so widespread, and seemingly timeless, that it appears to be part of human DNA (speaking figuratively, at least) rather than being the product of any one culture or period.
For my purposes, even limiting the present text to the phenomenon of witch-hunting, whether literal or figurative, is still not enough of a restriction. As Demos notes, the phenomenon “rises virtually to the level of a cross-cultural universal; witches of one sort or another are, or previously have been, ‘hunted’ just about everywhere—in Asia, in Africa, in Australia, and among native people all across the Americas.”5
In various countries and regions in Africa, for example, or in Saudi Arabia, where witchcraft and witch-hunts are neither metaphor nor memories, “witches” in these regions are presently accused of using magic to harm others (maleficium), and are privately or public assaulted or executed for these “crimes.” Most often accused are women, children, and the elderly. Demos, however, like many writers on witchcraft, limits his work to the “pre-modern, and modern, West,”6 and while I hope to write more, in the future, about non-Western witchcraft (see “Witch-Hunting in Africa“), it, too, is beyond the scope of the present project.
In the “West,” witchcraft today is many things to many people, but illegal it is not.7 Oddly, however, we find in our vaunted West there remains not only the metaphor of witch-hunting, or of the witch trial, but also the mechanics of both, and these mechanics have remained virtually unchanged for some 2,000 years.8 Whether in well-known proceedings such as those in Perugia, Italy, against Amanda Knox, or in the U.S., against the “West Memphis Three” or the McMartin Preschool or the working class of Kern County, California, or Wenatchee, Washington–or in more quiet cases that unfold in various small corners of our heady West, from Creative Frontiers in Sacramento County, California, to the case of Jeremy Barney in Litchfield County, Connecticut, we find communities large and small “dumbly miming roles of ancient authorship”9: i.e., repeating the same narratives, assuming the same roles, enacting the same terrible plots against one another.
This is my focus: witch-hunting and witch-trials where witchcraft is neither widespread nor illegal; also, the substitutes we have created so that we may continue to carry out these proceedings in the absence of witchcraft; and, of course, the “witchcraft” that, ironically, defines such proceedings—i.e., the ability, even in the 21st century, to “magically” convict innocent persons, whether for crimes they did not commit or, even more magically, for crimes that never actually occurred. And it is this last category of maleficium that receives most of my attention, for Crimen Magiae is wondrous witchcraft indeed, here in the wise West, when blessings of the State, its leaders, and its citizens occasion the meting-out of very real punishments for imaginary crimes.
1 Cohn, Norman. Europe’s Inner Demons: An Enquiry Inspired by the Great Witch-Hunt New York: Meridian/New American Library, 1975.
2 Klaits, Joseph. Servants of Satan: The Age of the Witch Hunts. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1985.
3 Demos, John. The Enemy Within: 2,000 Years of Witch-Hunting in the Western World. New York, NY: Viking/Penguin, 2008.
4 I direct readers to the ACLU and NAACP among other organizations, for statistics related to the disproportionate conviction and sentencing of poor and minority groups in the U.S. For discussion of problems with the “War on Terror,” I hardly know where to begin—though one could do worse than to begin with the work of Noam Chomsky.
7 Italy may have a few laws still on the books; I’m not sure. It is also worth noting that many states–such as Idaho, Illinois, and Montana–have laws against “Ritual” Abuse, which is variously defined as dismembering or torturing another person as part of a ceremony, rite, initiation, observance, performance or practice, when the victim did not consent or was unable to render effective consent (such as in the case of a child), though these states are careful to note that such crimes do not include “the practice of male circumcision or a ceremony, rite, initiation, observance, or performance related thereto.” See Illinois Public Act 90-0088 [ http://www.ilga.gov/legislation/publicacts/pubact90/acts/90-0088.html ], Idaho Statute 18-1506A [ http://www.legislature.idaho.gov/idstat/Title18/T18CH15SECT18-1506APrinterFriendly.htm ], and Montana Code – Section 45-5-627: Ritual Abuse of a Minor [ http://codes.lp.findlaw.com/mtcode/45/5/6/45-5-627 ]
8 Some historians date witch-hunts to 1,000 years ago, and while they make a valid point regarding the influence of the Catholic Church on what some might call “proper” witch hunts and trials, the case for 2,000 years is more persuasive to me, if only because the Hebrew Bible makes clear, in Exodus 22:18, that readers are to promptly execute any woman who practices magic(k).
9 Arthur Miller, in Timebends, quoted in Donald Connery’s comprehensive book on the Barbara Gibbons/Peter Reilly case, Innocent Until Proven Guilty (New York, NY: Berkley, 2010).