Witch-hunts are dangerous; witches are not

The new cable TV series Salem looks scary. I don’t mean scary-movie scary. The trailer for the show looks a bit creepy, but the most frightening part of it is a simple statement that’s not just wrong, but lethally wrong: “There is something worse than a witch hunt: A witch.”

No, no, a thousand times no. A thousand years no. This is a matter of measurable fact and of documented history.

Look back over the past thousand years — or the past hundred years, or the past 10 years — and tally up the death toll from witch hunts. It’s uncountably vast. Young women, old women, widows, children, Jews, Native Americans, African Americans, albinos, redheads, the left-handed, Protestants, Catholics, Anabaptists, “infidels,” freethinkers and “deviants” and dissenters of every stripe  … the body count goes on and on and on.

“Salem” debuts this month on the WGN network.

None of them was killed by a witch. They were killed by witch hunts and by witch hunters, and all were innocent of the supposed “crimes” for which they died.

There is nothing worse than a witch hunt.

It’s not fair to judge a show by its trailer. I haven’t seen Salem, so I can’t say if the whole thing is as irresponsible and reckless as this trailer. And it’s possible that the storytellers behind this show understand my complaint here — that they understand that the most monstrous parts of human history (including current human history) involve the panic and frenzy of total war against imaginary monsters. It’s even possible that this is the main point of the show.

After all, one way of deconstructing the deadly mythology of witch-hunters is to play a kind of what-if game. Accept the outrageous premise they claim to believe and then imagine a story in which the phantoms and fantasies of their fears were real. Such stories might, if done well, help to expose and to underscore the unreality of those fantastical fears here in the actual world. Such stories can show the vast gap between those wild nightmares and the real world that we really live in.

So maybe that’s this show’s agenda. But if that’s what they’re shooting for, they’d best not miss, because that could mean reinforcing one of the deadliest lies ever told — the lie that “a witch” might be more dangerous than a witch-hunt.

The all-too-real body count resulting from that lie is vast and still-rising. Here’s hoping this show doesn’t add to that damage.

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