Saturday, 3 March 2007

10:2 Why do people feel menaced?

Those in power usually feel under threat. At one time it was the Jews who were rumoured to form an international conspiracy to undermine Christian values. They were believed to eat Christian children, engage in obscene rituals and generally to be subversive of all good values. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries certain beliefs coming in from Asia were declared to be heretical and the Cathars or Albigensians in the south of France were destroyed by sword and fire in a giant and ferocious crusade led by the Pope.

Then in the fifteenth century an even greater menace was thought to have arisen. Satan or the Devil emerged to lead a secret assault on civilization with his army of witches. For two hundred years the international conspiracy of evil was thought to consist of witches. Since they were such a threat and could not be detected by normal means, special measures were needed. Manuals were written, legal codes were bent and amended to deal with the new threat. The previous tools to crush heresy, including the Holy Office of the Inquisition, were now used in the war against supposed witches. Thousands were rounded up, tried, convicted and burnt.

So extreme was the fear that even in countries without the Catholic Inquisition and with a different legal system, the laws were altered to deal with the new threat. In England in the sixteenth century, people who could not normally act as witnesses, children against their parents, a husband against his wife, were permitted to do so in these special circumstances. Previous evidence of behaviour, attitudes and crimes, not normally revealed, could be brought before the court. The individual could be placed under unusual physical and mental pressures in order to find evidence. He or she could be deprived of sleep for long periods, supposedly to see if her ‘familiars’ (a small diabolical pet) came to visit her, but, in effect, breaking down her resistance. The presumption of innocence was greatly diminished, the necessity for direct proof was waived and circumstantial or ‘spectral’ (hazy spiritual) evidence was allowed.

In the end, faced with universal fear and loathing, shunned by their friends, told that they were part of a grand conspiracy of Satanic covens or cells loosely joined to each other, the poor creatures confessed and implicated others. They then confirmed that an organization existed whose totally irrational, unjustified and unprovoked aim was to undermine ‘civilization’ as we know it. So ‘civilization’ responded by further abandoning the very justification for its existence. Using the special techniques now allowed, it ‘proved’ the existence of witches and hanged or burnt thousands of them. Only much later did doubt set in. It emerged that the whole conspiracy was a delusion created by the legal methods used to attack it. Thousands had been destroyed on the basis of an illusion.

Similar panics still occur. In the 1950’s it was a panic about a secret conspiracy of ‘communists’ which led to the McCarthy trials in America and the destruction of the reputation of many innocent people.

Then in the 1980’s in Britain a new threat came to light, the so-called paedophile rings. The details of their activities and the widespread sexual abuse of children by their parents were often ‘recalled’ when children were ‘counselled’ by sympathetic experts. Satanic rituals in which children were sexually abused and even human sacrifices were supposed to occur, were suddenly believed to be widespread. Hundreds were imprisoned, thousands of children were taken away from their parents in dawn raids. Only later, as the panic declined, was it discovered that most of the accusations were false, created by the very methods of trying to deal with them.

So there are plenty of precedents for the fear of a malevolent Other, and all of them tend to involve the shadowy presence of Evil, the Devil or Satan. Worldwide conspiracies against civilization were thought to have existed for thousands of years. Among them were Christianity and Islam themselves before they came to dominate.

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