The Salem Witch Trials have been on my mind a lot over the last couple of days. I just polished off Ser Visal's Tale, the final story in Stephen Donaldson's collection Daughter of Regals. At its most basic, it's about a country run by templemen, who are afflicted with much the same obsession as those 17th Century pilgrims over rooting out witches at all costs, but this time said witches are actually real. If I had to sum up what Donaldson was aiming for with the story, it would be this: the problem with the Salem Witch Trials was not that witches don't actually exist.
It's the one point Miller couldn't easily make in The Crucible. Sure, Miller's play is a far superior work (which isn't to suggest Ser Visal's Tale is bad, it's pretty good in fact, it's just being compared to true greatness), but the inattentive viewer might walk away from the play thinking that the relevant message was that it's a horrible state of affairs when the innocent are blamed for things they didn't - and indeed couldn't - do.
That isn't a message that shouldn't be considered, of course, but that's only part of the horror of the McCarthyite method. It's too easy for people - those in America especially, who decades later still decry socialism for no better reason than they know it's a bit like communism somehow maybe - to conclude that the junior Senator from Wisconsin erred only in that he persecuted those who were in fact free of taint. The full message, and this is where Donaldson has the advantage over Miller through his use of a fantastical framework, is this: even if someone had been a communist, what the fuck business is it of yours?
Sometimes things come along at just the right, or wrong, time. Even as I was sitting in my flat, reading about a fictional world's legal proceedings, and how it assumed prisoners guilty until proven innocent, and worked on nothing more than guilt by association, this ad was being played in the States (I quite simply cannot bring myself to embed the video). In it, nine people (seven of them anonymous) are vilified in the most disgraceful manner on the grounds that they have - in their capacities as legal counsel - worked for and with prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.
There simply is no other way to interpret this than as a McCarthyite attack. Those that defend terrorists might share the terrorists' views. For sure, it isn't McCarthyism at its worst. Yet. But a pattern is being established here. Many of the most reprehensible members of the American right have spent the last few years dehumanising the enemy by claiming that said foe are less than they are; that the enemy doesn't deserve legal counsel, that the methods which would be roundly condemned as torture were they to used against an American are simply "harsh interrogation" when applied to them.
That they are worth so little that determining they are actually guilty is too great a risk to take. After all, what if real people got hurt in the crossfire?
And now, having apparently persuaded a truly worrying proportion of the US that torture is something people would rather not use in a perfect universe but gosh shucks there's no world peace or Santa Claus so we'd better break out the thumbscrews, we see these same callous moral black-holes are moving onto Stage 2: arguing that since those languishing in Guantanamo are nothing more than blobs of concentrated evil with thumbs (which, as mentioned, can be screwed), each of whom is more evil than the last, it is obvious that anyone still prepared to defend them must be morally questionable as well. They've moved from Miller's fears over not caring whether those they charge might be innocent to Donaldson's concerns over levelling accusations that are accurate but irrelevant since they involve entirely benign acts.
I've mentioned before that slippery slope arguments have their uses, and this is one such occasion. The hideous moral outrages suffered by this world and enacted upon many of those in it did not happen in a vacuum. Frequently they were built on years of work at changing public opinion by inches, taking away or twisting one layer of moral fortitude at a time, until people no longer remembered how things had started, and only knew that something needed to be done. It's at least arguable that Liz Cheney and Bill Kristol and their cronies have already won their first battle: they've persuaded a plurality that it's OK to torture brown people so long as someone thinks they're a terrorist. What happens if they win this battle, too? What if enough people are convinced that torturing the foreigners is OK but defending them in court is a moral outrage? When people have had a little time to have gotten comfortable with the idea that there is something inherently suspicious to defending a terrorist suspect, what will follow? What gets flensed away next time? Right to counsel? Will they close all government positions to those who remember it is the moral duty of the state to defend its own supposed enemies? Which right will the American people next decide is something that some people deserve, so long as they aren't one of those horrible terrorist people, or those who sympathise with them? Remember when empathy was just a bad quality for judges and a codeword for activism? Well, now it's indicative of treasonous leanings, too.
Nor is the above the only sign of the ugliness that might lay in wait for America. We already had to sit through the overwhelmingly distasteful scene of watching Republican Members of Congress demand an investigation over whether a Muslim group might have "infiltrated" Congress with "spies", by the inordinately sinister method of their members legitimately acquiring jobs and posts. And it's not like the US can rely on the press to act as watchdog, either. After two years of "Torture: Opinions Differ", we're now at "Smearing DoJ Lawyers For Maintaining The Rule Of Law: Opinions Differ". Glenn Greenwald is absolutely right, in any sane world the comparison with Murrow should have CNN begging for forgiveness. Anyone wanting to bleat platitudes at me about how there's nothing wrong with the American media would do well to study that particular link.
To be sure, I am not arguing that the USA is headed for some kind of Muslim pogrom, or even the arrival of a new blacklist (though it's not like the latter is inconceivable at this point). In fact, by the time I left the office tonight, pushback had already begun on this most hideously objectionable of actions. What I am saying is that if we are ever to ensure that things like the McCarthy era cannot take place again, it is critical that the first steps towards it are recognised for what they are. It is critical we remember that each failure of a society's moral compass, each attempt to exchange liberty and fairness for a little temporary safety (just to throw some Ben Franklin into this) makes the next failure that more likely, once the current collapse of morality has had time to harden into the new norm. The two biggest advantages that people like McCarthy enjoyed, and the Cheneys and Kristols and Bachmanns of today can rely on now, are the twin fallacies that periods of great villainy and tragedy can only happen in the past, and that people's definition of what constitutes too far will remain stubbornly constant as everything else flows towards the darkness.
To quote Guido Carosella: "That's how stuff that could never happen happens... 'cause people are too busy saying it couldn't". And when a superhero named Strong Guy can smell what's coming in the wind, you have to start wondering just how blinkered Wolf Blitzer and friends are willing to pretend to be.
In short, Keep America Safe has decided that it isn't enough to conclude that one's access to the justice system should be inversely proportional to the severity of your alleged crime and your supposedly just punishment. Apparently, access to one's lawyer needs to be stripped away as well. And dammit, if they can't get this sissy-Mary socialist atheistic gay orgy of a government to do anything about it, they're just going to have to lean on the lawyers themselves until they get the message.