Homeland Security in the Year 1692

Synchronicity? Yesterday I was driving up Rt.128 near Salem. Today’s New York Times has two stories about witchcraft on the editorial page.

From Hartford, Connecticut-

In 1662, the colonists of Hartford accused 39-year-old Mary Sanford of witchcraft. Based on evidence — drinking wine and dancing around a bonfire — the court pronounced her guilty “for not having the feare of God before thyne eyes.� Sanford was hanged, leaving behind five children and a shaken husband who was later acquitted of similar charges.

More than three centuries later, Sanford’s descendants, 14-year-old Addie Avery and her mother, Debra, of New Milford, Conn., have petitioned the State Legislature to exonerate their distant grandmother and 10 other people executed for witchcraft. The fight has taught them something, perhaps more than they wanted to know, about the mob mentality.

Mob mentality? Who could object to a symbolic gesture exonerating people who would never even be accused under any law on the books today? Leave it to the conservative blogs, like Landofthefree.net

This is the same sort of faux outrage we see from black Americans who want “apologies� or even reparations for slavery. It is foolish to imagine that an “apology� given 150 years after the end of a thing is in any way meaningful. No one is left on any side of the issue to either honestly offer or graciously accept such an apology. It happened. Deal with it.

If only such scapegoating were a thing of the distant past. Then we could conclude that we have nothing to learn from history and that our ancestors did nothing worth remembering. But today’s Times carries Nicholas D. Kristof’s warning that the societal stress of climate change is leading to a revival of the execution of women marked as witches.

In rural Tanzania, murders of elderly women accused of witchcraft are a very common form of homicide. And when Tanzania suffers unusual rainfall — either drought or flooding — witch-killings double, according to research by Edward Miguel, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley.

“In bad years, the killings explode,� Professor Miguel said. He believes that if climate change causes more drought years in Tanzania, the result will be more elderly women executed there and in other poor countries that still commonly attack supposed witches.

There is evidence that European witch-burnings in past centuries may also have resulted from climate variations and the resulting crop failures, economic distress and search for scapegoats. Emily Oster, a University of Chicago economist, tracked witchcraft trials and weather in Western Europe between 1520 and 1770 and found a close correlation: colder weather led to more crackdowns on witches.

Imagine living in fear of an enemy who is covert and ruthless. An enemy who hates us for all that we hold dear. An enemy who hides among us, using our freedoms and institutions against us. One who is so at war with all that we cherish that he is outside of our norms of fairness and decency. Our civilian legal tradition is helpless and impotent against such an enemy. We need special laws and prisons, special interrogation techniques. This was Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. Sound familiar?

And the clergy, the good educated Christian ministers. Can we look to them to lead us back to the Gospel of forgiveness and love of neighbor? Not in Salem, where Rev. Cotton Mather whipped up a crowd to hang his fellow minister, George Burroughs, for witchcraft. The witchcraft panic made Cotton Mather’s career. He published several best-selling books and became famous. Ministers are still making names for themselves as fearless soldiers of the Lord.

[In Eket, Nigeria] preachers are turning their attentions to children – naming them as witches. In a maddened state of terror, parents and whole villages turn on the child. They are burnt, poisoned, slashed, chained to trees, buried alive or simply beaten and chased off into the bush…

Although old tribal beliefs in witch doctors are not so deeply buried in people’s memories, and although there had been indigenous Christians in Nigeria since the 19th century, it is American and Scottish Pentecostal and evangelical missionaries of the past 50 years who have shaped these fanatical beliefs. Evil spirits, satanic possessions and miracles can be found aplenty in the Bible, references to killing witches turn up in Exodus, Deuteronomy and Galatians, and literal interpretation of scriptures is a popular crowd-pleaser.

Pastor Joe Ita is the preacher at Liberty Gospel Church in nearby Eket. ‘We base our faith on the Bible, we are led by the holy spirit and we have a programme of exposing false religion and sorcery.’ Soft of voice and in his smart suit and tie, his church is being painted and he apologises for having to sit outside near his shiny new Audi to talk. There are nearly 60 branches of Liberty Gospel across the Niger Delta. It was started by a local woman, mother-of-two Helen Ukpabio, whose luxurious house and expensive white Humvee are much admired in the city of Calabar where she now lives. Many people in this area credit the popular evangelical DVDs she produces and stars in with helping to spread the child witch belief.

Nigeria is a country divided between Christians and Muslims, with religious strife, poverty and political unrest. There is fear and desperation in Nigeria, just as in Salem in 1692. These are conditions that provide opportunities for demagogic politicians and religious entrepreneurs.

Not that we have those kinds of things here. In America we’re rational. And we’re never bitter, we always look on the bright side of life.

But we were not always so enlightened. When Mary Sanford was hanged, witchcraft trials were sporadic and few people were directly affected. If the accused was not yourself or someone you loved, then you could just keep your head down and thank the Lord that someone was cracking down on the crime of witchcraft. And sigh with relief that no one was paying attention to you.

But that all changed thirty years later when Salem turned on its own. Allegations and rumors swept through the community. In response to the panic, the normal legal process was replaced by the Court of Oyer and Terminer — hear and determine, so as to dispose of cases quickly in the crisis. Within a year, twenty innocent people, mostly church members, had been executed. Over 150 were imprisoned. Rich and poor alike were swept into the nightmare of accusation and detention, and for a while most of the citizens knew they were at risk.

So at great cost, Salem learned that the right to a fair trial and a defense lawyer is not just a luxury for peacetime, and that hearsay and testimony obtained under torture is worthless.

I hope that Mary Sanford really did drink wine and dance in the woods. I hope she had a moment of freedom from the heavy hand of frightened religious fundamentalism. Blessed be, sister. We’d better not forget you because we’re not home yet.

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3 thoughts on “Homeland Security in the Year 1692

  1. Homeland Security in the Year 1692…

    A covert group that strikes from within. They hate everything we stand for. A special court and enhanced interrigation techniques are needed in the crisis. This was Salem,1692. This is Nigeria today. Societies in panic turn on their own….

  2. The Nigerian sadness is much older than just today or this year or the last ten years. Strife in potentially the richest African nation has been a fact for the last 40 years or more, with anger and mistrust between different religious groups and tribal entities reaching the point of civil war, endless corruption and national paralysis. It seems that a national identity has been difficult to forge and the accomplishment of debate and discussion in place of violence has elluded government after government. Nigeria is a marvelous nation and has all the requirements for international leadership if only its internal divisions could be overcome.

  3. like many other countries, Nigeria’s development has been interrupted by oil and the greed from within and without as the world looks for fuel. Imagine the US in 1775 if gold were discovered in Cranston. we’d all be working the mines for the British and French.

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