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The Face of Evil: Terrorism as Witchcraft

Terrorism is a reality, if by “terrorism” we mean an act of violence directed at civilians for a political, social or religious purpose to free one’s land of an oppressive or occupying power, to intimidate or drive away an unwelcome minority, to expel an objectionable religious group.

But terrorism is a tactic, not a goal, and certainly not something that exists on its own. It’s the means by which people with a grievance who don’t have the wherewithal to wage outright war can engage its enemy in a violent way. It’s also the choice of governments when they want to intimidate and demoralize a weak adversary. An F-15 is as much an instrument of terror as is a suicide bomber’s belt of explosives.

Terrorism or “terror,” though, has in the last few decades become more than just a word designating a particular kind of violence. It has taken on a much bigger, substantive meaning, just as “evil” came to mean something that exists on it own like a nation-state or an army. We now take up arms against terrorism in much the same way some people believe they are fighting “evil.” It’s our modern equivalent of the Devil or his agents.

There used to be a phenomenon that was seen and treated in much the same way we deal with terrorism today. It was called witchcraft. From the early fifteen to the mid-seventeenth centuries a large number of women – almost always women – inspired fear in the population of Europe. They were believed to be dealing in matters of the occult, had in fact signed a pact with the Devil and consorted with him regularly, sometimes in mass orgies. Almost anyone could find herself accused of witchcraft for unauthorized healing (such women had preserved a knowledge of beneficial herbs from pre-Christian days), for putting a curse on a neighbor or a neighbor’s child, even for being too ugly…or too pretty.

Kill them all, was the response of the authorities, especially the religious ones, Catholic and Protestant alike, the usual punishment being burning at the stake. A similar response is advocated today for all terrorists by politicians of every stripe and carried out by both liberal and conservative heads of state both here in the US and abroad.

No one knows how many women were killed simply for providing bella donna to ease the pain of someone in pain or for incurring the ire of a jealous neighbor. Such was the fear people had of witchcraft that they allowed the authorities the most extreme measures to deal with it, forgoing what today we would consider any right of due process should they be similarly accused, never mind freedom from religious persecution. Anyone could be denounced as a witch, and no doubt objecting to harsh measures taken against women so designated could make you liable to the same charge. Bishops bragged about how many women they had executed in one day – sometimes hundreds.

This was a fever that went on for two centuries in both northern and southern Europe as well as in the American colonies, Salem, Massachusetts being the most notorious. Ironically, it died out in Spain under the Inquisition before it did in the north, probably because they already had so many heretics and other malefactors to deal with. When it ended, it did so remarkably swiftly in the mid-seventeen hundreds, more or less at the same time the beginnings of modern science was being born. It continues today, though, in many parts of the world – India and Africa, to name two. A woman there can be denounced for having caused the death of someone’s child or other relative through occult means or for just about any other ill fortune that visits someone in her village. And the result is the same: a horrible death, though these days carried out by neighbors rather than by an established religion.

We like to think we have progressed beyond a mentality that believes an ordinary-looking woman can ride a broom at night to have a rendezvous with the Prince of Darkness. But human nature has been remarkably consistent throughout recorded history. Before we cheer on the next drone strike or look the other way when a Muslim neighbor is hauled off to prison without benefit of the law we believe will protect us from such treatment, we should think again. To rephrase words spoken with  remorse after the last great witch hunt of our civilization, the Nazi era: If we say nothing when they come for Muslims or undocumented immigrants and torture and imprison them without a public outcry, the witch-hunters may end up coming for us as well.



Black hat, not handsome, never gets the girl. A stereotype, a Hollywood cutout of a character, that half-crouching paper figure cops shoot at when they take target practice. Not to be found in the real world, or even in a serious movie or novel.

Until recently. Now we hear the phrase from journalists and Congressmen, from talk show hosts and presidents alike. It’s like hearing them suddenly regress to the speech and moral vision of their earliest childhood. We tell our children to watch out for bad people, people who might want to touch them in bad ways or lure them into their cars and do bad things to them. Children need that kind of simplification just as later in their lives (though not that much later) they need to understand a more complex version of human behavior without sacrificing their own safety.

To that older child, a child of twelve or thirteen, to speak of “bad guys” should cause them to look at you twice as if you had just reverted to baby-talk. It’s an insult to speak to them that simplistically, and they know it. Yet we adults now accept that phrase from our highest political officials and most respected media analysts without batting an eye.

Why? Is it just a kind of shorthand, a way of saving time? Or did it start out that way and then start to serve another, less innocent purpose? Its use implies that speaker and audience know who the bad guys are: Al Qaeda, the Taliban, muggers and rapists and anyone who should be dead or behind bars. But now I hear government officials and  journalists (who certainly should know better) use the phrase to designate anyone whose telephone conversation or emails might possibly indicate they intend to do the rest of us Good Guys some harm. And therefore those officials must monitor all our communications to see which of us are in fact bad guys masquerading as good guys.

I get tired of hearing Orwell quoted every day, but isn’t this exactly what he had in mind when he wrote about how language molds thinking, which molds politics? And do we really need to be reminded of this by a man dead more than sixty years ago? Is it not something we can work out for ourselves?

Yet, we don’t. We listen to our senators and mayors, not to mention our police commissioners, refer to “bad guys” as if there really were such a sub-species of humanity instead of individual persons who do what they do for reasons as rational and, from their point of view, as moral as anything we ourselves do. And then we applaud a pope for saying he doesn’t condemn homosexuals, i.e. for no longer referring to them as bad guys — “sinners,” to use the term of art in that world.

Go figure.