Puritans in Salem, Massachusetts, in the summer of 1692 must have viewed the threat of witchcraft in much the same way Americans today view the prospect of another attack by Al Qaeda. Witches were, so to speak, supernatural terrorists. They blended into the population and attacked the innocent without warning. In covenant with Satan himself, they aimed to destroy the godly. Witches had to be stopped. In the end, however, the means employed in Salem’s life-and-death struggle against the Devil ended by harming the very community they were supposed to preserve. As the historian Perry Miller observed, the witchcraft trials, which led to nineteen deaths by hanging, were a “blot on New England’s fame” which, over time, were “enlarged, as much by friends as by foes, into its greatest disgrace.” There is a lesson here for our own “war on terror,” which has a similar problem with means: the use of torture to obtain information from suspected terrorists.
The Puritans cannot be faulted for believing that witches posed a threat. It was a view held not only in Massachusetts but in the entire Christian West. Consequently, the Puritans acted reasonably in making witchcraft-entering into a covenant with the Devil—a crime. They can, however, be faulted for their reliance on “spectral evidence” in convicting the accused. Under the influence of the presiding judge, Lieutenant Governor William Stoughton, the court operated on the assumption that the Devil could not appropriate the shape of a person who did not consent to work with him. Consequently, the court admitted testimony from victims claiming to have seen a defendant’s “specter” even though the defendant was physically present elsewhere.
But the Devil is the father of lies. Why wouldn’t he take the spectral form of innocent persons in order to destroy godly individuals and communities? Prominent members of the Puritan clergy, such as Increase Mather, expressed theological and practical doubts about the reliability of spectral evidence. But their doubts were not expressed with sufficient force to bring the process to an early conclusion. Historian Francis Bremer suggests that the religious leaders hesitated to bring pressure on the governor to stop the madness for fear of jeopardizing their own political influence in the colony.
What about our own “war on terror”? As the attacks of September 11, 2001, showed, the threat of terrorism is very real. We cannot be faulted for responding aggressively. Yet, in our zeal to identify our furtive enemies, we have become entangled in our own “spectral evidence” problem. Leaving aside the moral questions, there is good reason to doubt that torture can produce reliable information about future terrorist attacks or past perpetrators.
At a June forum sponsored by the group Human Rights First, fifteen experienced former interrogators issued a statement affirming that “the use of torture and other inhumane and abusive treatment results in false and misleading information, loss of critical intelligence, and has caused serious damage to the reputation and standing of the United States.” That conclusion echoes the judgment of Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.), chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, quoted by Jane Mayer in her new book The Dark Side: “I have heard nothing to suggest that information obtained from enhanced interrogation techniques has prevented an imminent terrorist attack.... I do know that coercive interrogation can lead detainees to provide false information to make the interrogation stop.” Mayer offers a blunt summary: “In other words, according to one of the few U.S. officials with full access to the details, the drastic ‘ticking time bomb’ threat used to justify what many Americans would otherwise consider indefensible tactics, had never actually occurred, other than on the TV sets of those watching Fox-T.V.’s terrorism fantasy show 24.”
If a community sees itself as locked in a life-and-death battle with an evil and implacable enemy, it is likely to lose moral perspective on its own actions. Years later, when the threat has passed, the next generation will look back at some actions with shame. At the end of her book, Mayer quotes Philip Zelikow, director of the 9/11 Commission, who predicted that in time the Bush administration’s turn to torture would be compared to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s internment of the Japanese during World War II: “Fear and anxiety were exploited by zealots and fools.”
We cannot step out of the fear and anxiety endemic to our times any more than the Puritans could. But we can learn from their mistakes. The best defense against moral blindness—and the reprobation of future generations—is close attention to the relationship between evidence and truth. The “evidence” produced by torture is finally no more reliable than a ghost sighting.