July 15th, 2009

Russell Baker, reviewing a book by the eminent historian Edmund Morgan which touches on the aftermath of the Salem witch trials (NYRB, paywall):

Five years later [in 1697] the General Court of Massachusetts, deciding that the state had executed innocent people, did something that today would be utterly inconceivable. It appointed a day of public fasting during which the people were to ask forgiveness for what they had done. Samuel Sewall, one of the Salem judges, stood in church with bowed head while a minister read his statement begging forgiveness of God and man and asking that “the blame and shame of it” be placed on him.

There’s an analogy, and a striking contrast, with the response to American torture since 1991. The parallel is of course weak in detail. I doubt if the contemporary debate on a truth commission has much to learn from the mechanics of the proceedings of 1697, though they would make a good exercise in a history of law class. More important, the Salem wrongs were less in scale (24 to 37 deaths against over 100 in US custody in the GWOT, among thousands abused). They were also less shocking by the standards of their respective times. The popular hysteria that drove the Salem trials broke out within a belief in witchcraft sanctioned by tradition, law and Scripture; the Bush/Cheney tortures were a breach of law, practice and values settled since the English Civil War. Governor Phipps was carried along by the Salem craze, and eventually put a stop to it; GWOT torture was a radical innovation deliberately imposed by a quite unrepentant executive, quite as much as Mary’s burnings or Elizabeth’s rackings.

The Salem penance was incomplete. Sewall was only one of seven judges, the false accusers were not prosecuted, and the influential Mathers did not join in. But when all’s said and done, Puritan Massachusetts did submit itself to a painful public catharsis; and that was the end of (serious) witchcraft trials in the colonies. In contrast, Obama’s Administration and Congress are playing for time and hoping they can get away without one.

But there are times when only a scarlet letter will do.


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