Published on
the Idaho Statesman

Salem Witch Trials, Guantanamo Have a Lot in Common

Greg Hampikian

The Idaho Shakespeare Festival should be congratulated on a timely and entertaining reminder of what justice is not. Sitting in the audience recently, seeing "The Crucible" for the first time, I was heartstruck by both its historical accuracy and its immediate relevance.

The Salem witch trials are perhaps the best example of what happens when special courts are convened in times of panic. Imagine being charged by anonymous rumors from witnesses you can not confront. Consider what it was like trying to explain a false "confession" obtained by your own repeated dunking, or pressing (having stones placed on your chest until you confess or die).

See the play, and then read the Supreme Court's ruling last week shutting down the Special Administrative Courts for detainees at Guantanamo, some of whom were "water boarded."

It is eerie to consider the parallels between the court at Salem and the now defunct special courts. The one in Salem also was appointed by the executive, a royal governor, and it combined standard and novel methods of jurisprudence. It was not a universally accepted process and, as Arthur Miller's brilliant work chronicles, there was sufficient opposition in Andover, Mass., to shut down the proceedings there.

Of course, Miller's play was inspired by his own experience with another reactionary proceeding promulgated by Sen. Joe McCarthy. The playwright had been named by a fellow writer as a communist sympathizer in the 1950s. After Miller refused to appear before McCarthy's Senate committee, he was blacklisted and sentenced to jail.

One of the worst consequences of terrorism is the assault on justice that follows from public panic. A lot has changed in 300 years, but we must be ever vigilant to guard the ideas embodied in our Constitution.

When Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham asked Gen. Thomas Hartman whether our own airmen also should be subject to waterboarding, the general said that he was "not prepared to answer that question" -- this from the man who is the Guantanamo Bay legal adviser for the Military Commissions Office.

Most professional interrogators are against torture for both humanitarian and practical reasons. Torture does not get you the truth; victims of assault will say whatever is needed to stop their tormentors.

This side effect of "aggressive interrogation" is the reason the Swiss government proposed a long-delayed exoneration last week. The case involved a confession obtained by a non-lethal means: hanging by the thumbs with stones tied to the feet. During such an interrogation, Anna Goeldi admitted that she was a witch who had caused a young woman to spit out needles and go into convulsions. Miss Goeldi was beheaded in 1782.

There are those who believe that our government should use extreme measures to get convictions. To them, I say that if we measure the justice system only by the number of guilty people who are convicted, then we must consider the Salem witch trials a resounding success, since 100 percent of the witches in Salem were convicted. Rather, I suggest that the founders of our nation wisely add safeguards to decrease that other measure of the justice system -- the number of innocents convicted.

Greg Hampikian, Ph.D., is director of the Idaho Innocence Project, professor of Biology, and Criminal Justice at Boise State University.

© 2008 Idaho Statesman

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