OnWords: Witch Hunt

Nov 13, 2018

When an American uses the term “witch hunt,” a few inter-related referents come to mind.

The first of these is to the Salem, Massachusetts witch trials of the late 17th century, during which 20 were executed for suspected witchcraft, and, according to Smithsonian magazine, over 200 accused.

Even though the trials were later admitted to be in error and the families of the dead compensated, we still associate this moment in American history, and by association the term “witch hunt,” with state sanctioned persecution as a result of mass hysteria.

By the mid-20th century, Arthur Miller made use of this association in his play The Crucible, which recounts the Salem witch hunt as an allegory for the anti-communist paranoia spread by the House Un-American Activities Committee and the parallel activities of Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Since then, public figures have invoked the term “witch hunt” often when they want to claim their innocence and imply the irrationality of those who bring them under scrutiny.

And while the Red Scare of 60 years ago ruined the careers and reputations of many, unlike the Salem witch hunt, it led to no hangings, and no one was pressed to death under large stones.

Nor have public figures sustained permanent damage, physical or otherwise, after crying witch hunt since.

Miller’s allegory is apt and beautifully written, but its lesson, I’m afraid, has been lost in a slow rain of witch hunt hyperbole.