Not only could the kind of mass hysteria that resulted in the Salem Witch Trials occur again, many Americans would argue that it already has. When playwright Arthur Miller was writing “The Crucible” during the early 1950s, the United States was experiencing a level of psychological dread or fear that equaled that experienced during the late-17th Century when paranoia regarding witches took hold among the community of Puritans. Fears of communist infiltration of American society combined with the detonation of its first atomic bomb in 1949 by the Soviet Union, led by one of the greatest mass murderers in history, Joseph Stalin, created a sense of paranoia that resulted in what became known as “the Red Scare.” The discovery of an espionage network composed of American citizens who passed sensitive information on the American atomic weapons program, culminating in the trial, conviction and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, contributed to the sense of threat many Americans felt.
The Red Scare resulted in the very kind of paranoia that resulted in the Salem Witch Trials, including congressional hearings in which prominent American citizens were forced to identify those among their communities who were suspected communists, with those “named” the target of ostracism and, in the case of many members of the Los Angeles-based film community, blacklisting from their profession. The fact that the Soviet Union did in fact pose a threat – albeit considerably more limited in scale and scope than most feared – and that communists and communist sympathizers did exist inside many American institutions did not explain the level of hysteria that gripped the nation during that period, nor does it explain or apologize for the victimization to which many were subjected as a result of their political affiliations or alleged affiliations.
Arthur Miller wrote “The Crucible” as an allegory of the anti-communist hysteria that swept the United States during the early 1950s. His thinly veiled reference to that era in American history was intended to compel reflection on the part of theater-goers, an admittedly limited category of citizen in those days, regarding the tenuous nature of civilization in the face of a perceived threat – even one as preposterous as the fear of witches. Any sense that such incidences could not reoccur, however, was eliminated following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. The mass hysteria that followed those attacks – not unfounded given the fact that commercial airliners had been hijacked and flown into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon, with a fourth aircraft crashed in Pennsylvania that had been targeted against either the White House or the U.S. Capitol – resembled those earlier dark periods in American history. Americans of Middle Eastern and South Asian heritage were attacked and marginalized as a result of their ethnicity and many citizens refused to fly for months or years afterward. Most importantly, the revelations of extreme excesses in detention centers in Afghanistan, Iraq, the U.S. Naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and other locations were all manifestations of the fears that gripped the nation following the terrorist attacks.
Not only could the hysteria that created the Salem Witch Trials occur again, it has, repeatedly.