The night of the manhunt that ended when Dzokhar Tsarnaev was caught, hiding like a child who had played at a game for far too long, under a tarp in a boat on dry land, I sat in a bar lit by narrow filament bulbs shining through hanging, chain-bound baskets of pennies. Above the wall stocked with liquor, light flickered through shapes cut from a wooden border—a serpent, it looked like, a sun, maybe a figure dancing. A friend and I sat next to each other, thumbing continually through social media feeds, searching for news from Boston, turning sometimes to tell each other what we’d found. People we knew were barricaded in their living rooms.
An old acquaintance wrote that he and his young daughters had missed the explosions near the finish line by mere minutes, and cut quickly to a common pulse: “Puritan justice circa 17thcentury please.”
Within days of the bombing, there were rumors that the death penalty would be reinstated in Massachusetts: non-binding referenda showed that voters would support it, and an amendment quickly reached the floor of the state House of Representatives. The government of the Commonwealth, which had abolished the death penalty in 1984, for now rejected any change. But Dzokhar Tsarnaev’s trial was likely to be a part of a federal case, which meant that punishment by death could indeed be decided in Massachusetts.
In the weeks and months following the explosions, the words “witch hunt” rang, with frequency, over television transmissions, radio broadcasts, and across computer screens. Investigations of the attack on Americans in Benghazi had been, and continued to be, “a witch hunt.” The IRS targeting scandal, surveillance of journalists under PRISM, and many smaller political maneuvers were wrapped in these words—formerly weighty, now seeming flimsy, decorative. During the week of the Boston search, the online forum Reddit was accused of encouraging a witch hunt by asking its online community to find matches for a man in the grainy surveillance photographs of one of the bombers released by the FBI. Days later, following the harassment of innocent people like the family of twenty-two year old Brown University student Sunil Tripathi, who had been missing since March, Reddit apologized, using the same words: “witch hunt.” The words clapped against the cobblestones of Boston, and turned the dust of the cruel colony that came before it.
In the same days and weeks, the evils of our government were also decried in mainstream forums with unusual force. The day before the Boston bombing, the New York Times had published an op-ed written by Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel—one of ninety-three prisoners at Guantanamo participating in a hunger strike, then in its third month. Al Hasan Moqbel had described his haphazard arrest, eleven years and three months prior, and the excruciating process of being force-fed via a long tube reaching through his nose and into his stomach, by members of the U.S. military. Days later, an op-ed by the Times’ own editorial board condemned the continued captivity of uncharged, untried prisoners at the detention center: by that third week of April, of one hundred and sixty-six men being held in cells at the prison, only six were facing active charges. There were almost fifty men at Guantanamo whom the government admitted it had insufficient evidence to prosecute but deemed too dangerous to be released. We kept them—and keep them—that is, not because of any crime, but because of fear.
The phrase “witch hunt”—scorched into the language of politics by Arthur Miller’s 1952 play The Crucible, written as a response to the McCarthy hearings—has been critically diluted and transformed. It is entirely wrong to refer to the relentless pursuit of American wrongdoing in Benghazi as a witch hunt; likewise IRS targeting, likewise PRISM, likewise ad hominem punches in Senate confirmation hearings. A witch hunt is not simply a determined attack with political motivation: it is an attack in which the accusation of wrongdoing is largely equivalent to a conviction—delivering the same shadow, shame, and often, legal consequences. Dependent on the witchy aura of words, it is the phenomenon that causes a suspected communist to suffer the consequences of communist actions; an accused witch those of witchery; an accused terrorist, those of violence against innocent people. The political witch hunt has by nature political, practical motivations, but it derives its power from the fear the accusations stir in the crowd, and from the occult belief that we can quarantine harm. It is the pointing finger itself that condemns, and the accuser that incants a curse.
This has always been the allure of the Salem witch trials, that which makes us return to the scene. We do believe there was a type of evil in Massachusetts in 1692, and a type of witch: the accusers, the girls and townspeople who called “devil.” It is not only that we know that the “afflicted” girls practiced what they themselves thought to be witchery— examining a raw egg in a bowl, as if it were a fortuneteller’s ball, or, in the mythologized (and false) version of Salem, invoking the voodoo of the Parris family’s Carribean Indian slave, Tituba, dancing naked around a fire in the woods, sacrificing a chicken, drinking its blood, as depicted in the 1996 film adaptation of The Crucible. It is that the girls played pretend all the way to the foot of the gallows, and the adults of Salem, led by fear and perhaps greed in the form of land lust, seem to have been quite determined to kill people. The name we give the trials, in retrospect, is ambiguous: Which is the witch?
A new historical-fiction series, “Salem,” which premiered on WGN this Sunday (Easter, perhaps a slight provocation), seems to be built on this very idea, and a poster for the show, appearing frequently in subway stations around New York, plays upon the same homophony: above the silhouette of something resembling both an empress and a mutant tree, it reads: “Which Among Us.” In a trailer for the series, between shots of Louisiana woods disguised as Massachusetts, and a close-clustered tall-roofed village bearing little resemblance to colonial New England, the words, “It wasn’t paranoia” flash across a black screen in white print. Then: “It was real.” A male character, in voiceover, presents the highly anachronistic self-awareness that seems the show’s premise: “There could be nothing worse for Salem than a witch hunt,” he says. We learn, through bits of dialogue, set against quick shots of sex, torch-bearing mobs, and ghoulish violence, that the real witches of “Salem” are those undertaking the hunt.
The idea that we can become evil through attempts to defeat evil, or while claiming that end—that we become what we fear—is common in discussions of capital punishment, and of terrorism and torture. The War on Terror—a title that can be read as “the War predicated on terror,” the war whose cause and logic is fear—has been driven by a 17th century belief in both inhuman forces and our ability to contain them. It seems today that we rarely remember how conspicuous was the public language of “evil” and “darkness” as George W. and his associates primed the country for a military response to September 11th. And since the War on Terror began, foreign prisoners at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and other American camps, have been dressed in hoods, made to squat in darkness, held underwater, chained to cement, jammed into small crates, all to make them speak—to admit their evil, or the evil they’ve seen.
Certainly, there is “Puritan justice” here, as there is witchery. That the two are bound together, that such justice could resemble cultish sadism, is not surprising when we consider that New England Puritans believed so strongly in the devil that their worldview can, from our vantage, resemble something pagan: the earth was not yet won for God, and was in effect controlled by two rulers. Historian Frances Hill writes, “It is hard to grasp the nature of the Puritans’ belief in supernatural beings. Devils and spirits were not abstract ideas but creatures dwelling all around them. It was for this reason that Satan was sometimes referred to as the ‘Prince of the air.’”
The “Puritan justice” called for by my old acquaintance was of course something different: something definitive, severe, and unforgiving, fitting perhaps with the words of Judge Danforth in Miller’s Crucible: “This is a sharp time, now, a precise time—we live no longer in the dusky afternoon when evil mixed itself with good and befuddled the world.” But these words served Miller’s purpose because they were exactly wrong. The real Thomas Danforth didn’t sit on the court at Salem, but the certainty of Judges Samuel Sewall, John Hathorne, and others who did, would haunt Massachusetts for years to come. Hathorne, who never expressed remorse for the witch trials, would have a grandson who would go on to add a “W” to his last name to distance himself from the hangings at Salem, and would eventually become our most famed critic of Puritanical hypocrisy, Nathaniel Hawthorne.
In May of 1693, when the rope-wrung mania of the witch trials had exhausted itself, the responsible parties stood in the shame of causeless killing, and freed the accused left in jail. The town and colony began the pardons and apologies then that would continue into the 21st century. Around ten years later, the Massachusetts House of Representatives wrote into law that no “spectral evidence” could again be used in criminal proceedings.
In May of 2013, 320 years later, the US government held prisoners based on evidence that could, very plainly, be called immaterial. It was legal wriggling by the Bush administration, signed by George W., and in large part upheld by the actions and inactions of Obama, his cabinet, and congress—see Jill Lepore, “The Dark Ages” or Lawrence Douglas, “A Kangaroo in Obama’s Court”—that concluded that “the nature of international terrorism” made it “not practicable to apply… the principles of law and the rules of evidence generally recognized.” Following the public outcry in response to al Hasan Moqbel’s description of Guantanamo and broader media coverage of the hunger strikes, President Obama was interrupted during a speech at the National Defense University, at Fort McNair, by a young woman pressing the issue. He allowed that it was “worth being passionate about” and soon deflected smoothly: “Look at the current situation, where we are force-feeding detainees who are being held on a hunger strike,” he said. “Is this who we are?”
It’s a good question, and a useful rhetorical device. But the President knew, as we did, that the answer was at least in part “Yes.”
Following Dzokhar Tsarnaev’s capture, authorities found that he had written on the inside of the sheltering boat, perhaps like a teenager scrawling graffiti, perhaps like an insurgent on his last legs. “The U.S. government is killing our innocent civilians,” he wrote. “I can’t stand to see such evil go unpunished.”
That Tsarnaev killed and maimed innocent civilians himself is quite clear. And we, too, cannot “stand to see such evil go unpunished”: by decision of Attorney General Eric Holder, a guilty verdict for Tsarnaev will mean the death penalty. That our country kills innocent civilians is also true. We now shoot men, women, and children from the sky over foreign land. One of the quieter effects—from this distance—of the War on Terror, via the American drone program, is an “unprecedented” level of psychological distress in Pakistani civilians. Is there a punishment that we deserve?
A 2002 essay, “Why I’m Not For Peace,” by Ellen Willis, cautions us to tread carefully here. Willis pointed to a strain of thinking in the American “peace left”—those who opposed military retaliation following 9/11—that positioned the immoral actions of the United States as a type of sin for which we must pay. “…At the heart of the matter,” she wrote, “is an unspoken meta-argument: that America is a sinful country, and must achieve redemption through nonviolence. Violence committed against us is the wages of sin. …Sow the wind, reap the whirlwind.” She continues later:
“The implication is there’s such a thing as a morally pure state: one that abjures power, wealth, and violence and is sincere, truthful, and consistent. In fact, a morally pure state is an oxymoron. The state, including its liberal democratic version, is an inherently problematic institution, whose basic reason for being is to exercise power and protect its sovereignty, its physical integrity, and its wealth, by force if necessary.”
No individual civilian deserves violence for the violence of its country, and it is incoherent, in Willis’s view, to discuss what the state itself—a non-moral entity—“deserves.” But we find ourselves in the strange position of being a part of a country, begun by zealots, who aspired to exactly the oxymoron Willis describes: the morally pure state. Thus our identity is not one of moral purity, but of aspirational morality. And without the ambition to be better, we have very little.
Puritan John Winthrop, founding figure and four-times Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, in his famed “city upon a hill” sermon, given aboard the ship Arbella in 1630, on its way to New England, said that the “only way” to avoid “shipwreck” in the new colony was to “follow the counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly…”
This theory of Puritanism—loving “mercy,” especially—lies quite far from the historical practice of Puritan justice. But it is worth noting that the Hebrew name Micah is a question, a rhetorical challenge: it means, “Who is like God?” Indeed, who are we? Which is the witch? The questions are not so different.