Valentine’s Day found me without any spectacular plans, and I meant to go to sleep early, rise Tuesday morning, and write my column on an entirely different topic. For a little reading before bed, however, I started on “The Crucible.” Though I’d cut out of work last Friday to help with the Daily’s coverage of Arthur Miller’s passing, I’d somehow never read anything but “Death of a Salesman.”

Ken Srdjak

The play proved impossible to put down, however, and four acts later, I was physically shaking. “But you must understand, sir,” Deputy Governor Danforth tells Francis Nurse when Nurse presents a petition of 91 names defending the character of some of those accused as witches, including his wife, “that a person is either with this court or he must be counted against it, there be no road between.”

“But over time, it’s going to be important for nations to know they will be held accountable for inactivity,” our president said two months after the attacks of Sept. 11. during a joint press conference with, of all people, French President Jacques Chirac. “You are either with us or you are against us in the fight against terror.”

The power of Miller’s allegory lies in its universality, its relevance to any political atmosphere heated by fear and smoky with repression. Chinese audiences were surprised to learn the play was not about life under communism. Miller intended his works to address more general topics: “If my plays were about the social problems of their day,” he once told the playwright and journalist Tony Vellela, “nobody would keep doing them. The problems would have changed.”

Surely, the McCarthyite paranoia that inspired Miller’s allegory — and the suspension and firing of tenured professors at the University for refusal to testify before members of the House Committee on Un-American Activities — is no longer with us. Replace “communist” with “terrorist,” however, and the same problems reappear.

Due process? “In an ordinary crime, how does one defend the accused? One calls up witnesses to prove his innocence. But witchcraft is, ipso facto, on its face and by its nature, an invisible crime, is it not?” The easiest way to prosecute a terror suspect without divulging any critical information during the trial is to simply not prosecute him at all — even if, as in the case of Jose Padilla, he’s an American citizen arrested unarmed on American soil. Just trust the authorities; they can tell who’s a terrorist without any silly presumption of innocence.

Freedom of thought? John Proctor didn’t attend church often enough, and his wife didn’t believe in witches. Such suspect behavior aids the enemy, though, and both were sentenced to hang. A professor in Colorado writes an essay that, in calmer times, would be dismissed for the inflammatory, radical nonsense it is, and instead Bill O’Reilly starts steaming and the governor of the state calls for the man’s head.

Torture? This one isn’t even allegorical. When Giles Corey stood mute at his indictment, they piled boulders on his chest until he finally spoke — “More weight,” he said, and died. After finishing “The Crucible,” I thumbed through Seymour Hersh’s book “Chain of Command,” which details abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo grotesque enough I don’t want to dwell on them. Because I’ve let the book gather dust since October because it’s so depressing, however, it’s now woefully out of date, as more “interrogation” practices continue to come to light. The accused witches admitted their “guilt” to spare their lives, and terror suspects do the same. I’m not sure what we gain, in terms of information or moral standing, from such confessions. Yet we are now an allegedly civilized country having a national debate over exactly what constitutes torture. Think about that.

I’m perfectly aware that many people are unimpressed by any of this. There wasn’t much outrage in Salem at first either; as Reverend Parris notes near the end of the play, “it were another sort that hanged until now.” A strong reaction in times of fear is entirely natural and, indeed, often appropriate. The sort who are affected by the excesses of our reaction are usually distant enough as to not seem relevant.

Problems arise, though, when interpretations are rigid and good and evil seem crystal clear. Miller sums up the motives of his Puritan characters: “They believed, in short, that they held in their steady hands the candle that would light the world. We have inherited this belief, and it has helped and hurt us.”

Bush’s second inaugural address carried on this tradition. “America, in this young century, proclaims liberty throughout all the world, and to all the inhabitants thereof. Renewed in our strength — tested, but not weary — we are ready for the greatest achievements in the history of freedom,” our infallible president said. It would have been honestly inspiring if only I could make myself believe he’d learned from some of his mistakes over the past four years.

As I type this, the sun has risen, and I would like to feel optimistic. Though “The Crucible” is undeniably a tragedy, the last sentence of the note at the end of the play provides some hope: “To all intents and purposes, the power of theocracy in Massachusetts was broken.” With the Shiite plurality in the Iraqi elections and faith-based government at home, though, theocracy seems to be on the upswing right now.

 

Zbrozek can be reached at zbro@umich.edu.

 

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