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Reviewed by:
  • Witch Hunts: From Salem to Guantanamo Bay
  • Michael D. Bailey
Robert Rapley. Witch Hunts: From Salem to Guantanamo Bay. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2007. Pp. xii + 311.

The purpose of this odd book is to argue that, in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the fear and extraordinary governmental responses they have generated, the modern Western world, and particularly the United States of America, is on the verge of (though not yet embroiled in) a new era of witch hunts. The modern malefactors are, obviously, supposed terrorists rather than supposed witches. Their means of bringing about death and destruction are guns, bombs, and biological devices, not spells and incantations. Yet Rapley argues over the course of twenty breathless chapters that a number of characteristics that pertained to historical witch hunts also pertain in modern times. Most basically, he contends that any situation in which particular people or categories of people come to be understood as representing a dire threat, generating such a level of fear that, in response, authorities are willing to employ extraordinary measures to convict and punish, constitutes a witch hunt. Above all, a presumption of guilt in advance of any solid evidence must be the norm. Evidence must then be acquired (or fabricated) to prove the assumed guilt. “The verdict first, then the trial!” as Rapley repeatedly proclaims (in a text replete with exclamation points).

To demonstrate that the danger of witch hunting extends across the centuries, Rapley begins in the era of the major early modern European hunts. His first several chapters summarize hunts in Bamberg and Würzburg, Loudun, and Salem. Certainly Bamberg, Würzburg, and Salem represent classic (and horrific) examples of witch hunts. One might question the case of Loudun, since here, while demonic possessions were widespread within a community of Ursuline nuns, only a single person, the priest Urbain Grandier, was executed for demonic sorcery. Rapley needs to argue that witch hunts can involve only a single victim, however, since certain of his modern examples will involve single victims. Certainly Grandier was charged with sorcery based on questionable testimony in an environment charged with fear of the devil. Torture was applied and there seems to have been a considerable assumption of guilt on the part of authorities. Since there are deeper problems with Rapley’s argument than whether Grandier’s trial can be fairly characterized as a witch hunt or not, let us leave the issue aside.

In the second part of his book, Rapley present several cases of “witch hunting” from nineteenth- and twentieth-century Europe and America, specifically the treason trial of Alfred Dreyfus in France, the rape trial of the nine African-American “Scottsboro Boys” accused of assaulting two white [End Page 245] women in Alabama, and the terrorism trials of the “Guildford Four” and “McGuire Seven,” accused of being IRA bombers in Great Britain. In each case, in a climate of fear, members of marginal groups (a Jew, blacks, and Irish immigrants to England) were accused of terrible crimes on questionable evidence. Based on assumptions of guilt, any possible defense or exonerating evidence was discounted, and in the end terrible legal punishments were meted out. In the third part of his book, Rapley focuses on the situation in the United States in the wake of 9/11: the restriction or abrogation of certain civil liberties and legal protections, the establishment of special prisons and prisoner-categories, the use of extraordinary judicial measures, up to and including the use of torture, and above all the climate of fear that supports it all. Curiously, Rapley refrains for alleging that the U.S. government is already engaging in witch hunts against supposed terrorists. Rather, he asserts only that conditions under which a hunt could occur have been created. It is an incoherent hesitation in an incoherently conceived book.

Let me dispense first with the obvious objection—that one indispensable characteristic of a witch hunt is that it be directed against practitioners of harmful magic. Rapley simply foregoes this requirement. He is interested in what he sees to be the procedural characteristics of “witch hunts,” whether focused on magical crimes or not. Numerous other authors...


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pp. 245-249
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