Despite a National Anthem that proclaims we are the land of the free and home of the brave, Americans have a long and storied history of fear — and that fear is often manipulated by demagogues.
In The Crucible playwright Arthur Miller examines our fear by showcasing society’s tendency to react in illogical ways when frightened. As Miller shows, these reactions are fueled and guided, in large part, by powerful players who intentionally override the common good and replace it with a political or personal agenda.
Written as a play, The Crucible is the retelling of the Salem Witch Trials. In the 1996 film version, starring Winona Ryder and Daniel Day-Lewis, Ryder plays the role of Abigail Williams the lead accuser during the witch trials. Lewis, who plays John Proctor, is the sole voice of reason as hysteria sweeps through the small New England community, a hysteria that inflicts death, incarceration and torture on innocent citizens.
But, as is often the case with fear, the voice of reason must be silenced, as Procter eventually learns.
As the story unfolds and the personal agenda of Abigail becomes apparent, the illogical beliefs that overthrow reason, justice and sensibility seem juvenile to the viewer especially when many of the accused ‘admit’ they are a witch simply to avoid prosecution and possible death. After these fake confessions are spoken, though, and the accused have renewed their allegiance to God, the community and church forgives them of their egregious sin. These actions highlight the obvious weaknesses of manipulating a society’s fear — citizens begin to tell people what they want or need to hear so they can be spared — and the victim is Truth.
Circle Logic And Faulty Use of Deductive Reasoning
Throughout the play, Miller examines the common human weakness of faulty thinking. In one scene the presiding judge, Thomas Danforth (Paul Scofield), explains to the court why the testimony of children (the ones exposing the witches) is valid. The court is forced to rely on the children’s testimony, Danforth says, because “witchcraft is an invisible crime and by its very nature we cannot call up witnesses.”
The ludicrousness of this approach is driven home when a woman is accused of being a witch because she predicted her neighbor’s pigs would die. When the court asked her how she knew the animals would die, she replied, “I have raised pigs all my life and know if they are not fed properly they will die.” Her truthful, logical answer is dismissed as a lie because she had successfully ‘predicted’ the animals would die thereby ‘proving’ she could foretell the future and/or cast a spell.
In the court where reason is replaced by fear, the only action necessary to be guilty, she learned, was to be accused.
That Was Then, Not Now
In 2015 it’s easy to mock the settlers for being superstitious and naïve, but that is the twist of the story. Miller wrote the play in response to the Congressional Communist witch hunts being conducted by Senator Joe McCarthy during the 1950s when — just like in Salem — reason, justice and sensibility were cast aside — and the accused often admitted guilt to avoid a more severe punishment.
The Problem Of Fear
In a world with very real threats — like the Paris terrorist attacks — fear is often exploited to manipulate an unsuspecting society. Scarcely before the bloodshed in Paris had ended, American politicians and pundits were using the element of fear to push their agenda. Within hours, social media was filled with posts condemning President Obama for the attacks, opportunists were crying “close the borders” and Ann Coulter said the attacks sealed Donald Trump’s presidential victory.
However, as ridiculous as those responses were, possibly the most asinine remark came from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich who tweeted,
Imagine a theater with 10 or 15 citizens with concealed carry permits. We live in an age when evil men have to be killed by good people.
Gingrich’s statement devalues the lives of the highly-trained U.S. soldiers who have died over the past decade and a half engaging a multitude of extremist and terrorist groups. By suggesting that any Tom, Dick, Harry or Jane with a gun could have neutralized the terrorists oversimplifies the situation and minimizes the amount of legwork and intelligence-gathering soldiers and their commanding officers engage in on a daily basis.
If predicting and eradicating evil was as simple as Gingrich suggests 9/11 would not have happened — and Able would have outlived Cain.
Rated 5 out of 5: The Crucible should be required viewing for all Americans. Although it’s ‘just a story,’ its principles are crucial to curtailing leadership by fear. This type of leadership, used over and over throughout America’s history, is one of the greatest obstacles to liberty.