It's Been 327 Years Since the Salem Witch Trials, but Fear Is Ruling America Again | Opinion

This month marks the 327th anniversary of the Salem witch trials, when 19 convicted "witches" were hanged in a wave of violent persecution in Massachusetts.

Witch trials may seem like horrific events from a backwards past, but today, in many developing countries, witchcraft accusations remain common, while modern democracies struggle to balance the rule of law in the face of what seem like existential threats.

Everyone is susceptible to hysteria when fear runs rampant, and fear comes in many forms, from witchcraft to terrorism to immigration.

Massachusetts, after all, was not the only place where women, men and children were killed as witches in the 16th and 17th centuries. Between 1450 and 1750, approximately 100,000 Europeans were put on trial for witchcraft and between 30,000 and 40,000 were executed.

The perceived threat was a projection of the fears of a society in flux: Growing economies had strained traditional social ties while the Reformation undermined established religion. This is the reason most of the accused were from marginalized groups such as women—particularly widows.

Most trials occurred in places with weak administrative capacity to impose rules and weak fiscal capacity to tax. Rugged border regions such as Aquitaine in France were particularly difficult to govern, as were far-flung colonies such as Salem. In our book, Persecution and Toleration: The Long Road to Religious Freedom, Mark Koyama and I show that a fortunate consequence of consistent governance across populations is more tolerance toward marginalized groups.

Invariably, witch trials today are conducted where the state is weak. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, thousands of children have been expelled from their homes as witches. In India, witch murders are most common in the poor, rural states of Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha.

Witch trials and their ilk, however, have never been limited to poor and developing countries. The alleged danger posed to the social fabric by marginalized groups such as Jews often became an excuse for extra-legal persecution in early-modern Europe.

In Salem, the witch trials were supposed to be legal proceedings, not mobs. A conviction required evidence that a defendant engaged in evil magic (maleficia) and devil worship (diabolism). Such evidence, even for 17th-century prosecutors, was difficult to find. This did not stop magistrates hell-bent on rooting out witches.

As the jurist and demonologist Jean Bodin wrote, "Proof of such evil is so obscure and difficult that not one of a million witches would be accused and punished if regular legal procedure were followed."

Tens of thousands of individuals were tortured, and the most common question asked by judges was "Who are the other witches?" An accusation against a single person could easily turn into a witch hunt persecuting hundreds—in the process validating public belief in the supernatural threat.

Today, the excuses to weaken legal standards tend to revolve around terrorism and immigration

A prominent example is what happened in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. The Patriot Act explicitly weakened the rules of evidence required to pursue alleged terrorists, as well as the rules against torture. Ordinary Americans found themselves under surveillance even though the mass collection of phone records did not directly prevent any terrorist attacks, according to the government's own 2014 report. To our shame, secret prisons and torture blackened America's reputation for justice and liberty.

More recently, children as young as 4 years old have been forced to defend themselves in deportation hearings without even the benefit of counsel. Is a deportation hearing for a child so different from a witch trial?

Migrant child deportation
Central American immigrant families depart U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody, pending future immigration court hearings on June 11, 2018, in McAllen, Texas. John Moore/Getty

In order to make it easier to identify and expel immigrants, the Trump administration is advocating the repeal of the 14th Amendment, which guarantees citizenship to anyone born on U.S. soil. Regardless of one's views on how many immigrants should come to the United States, this is a move to apply a different, weaker standard of law to a significant portion of the population.

Of course, present-day terrorism and immigration are real policy issues, not fantasy. However, the cost of the response depends on the perceived size of the threat.

Just as demonologists' arguments to relax standards of evidence to catch potential witches weakened the rule of law and resulted in the persecution of innocents, so do arguments to ignore or adjust the law to catch potential terrorists or immigrants.

The difficult question for citizens today is whether we are getting this balance right. We are unlikely to return to burning people at the stake, but neither America nor the world has reached the point where we can afford to forget the lessons of the witch trials.

Noel Johnson is an associate professor of economics at George Mason University and a research fellow with the Mercatus Center. He is co-author with Mark Koyama of the new book Persecution and Toleration: The Long Road to Religious Freedom (Cambridge University Press).

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.