Last year I visted Salem, Mass., renowned home of the witch trials. It was an amazing reminder of what happens when hysteria trumps reason and vengeance takes root in the human soul.
Walking through its streets, I realized that even the most virtuous among us can turn good intentions into something sinister, particularly when we think we’re on the side of the angels.
In our own time, it has taken the form of a crusade against child abusers.
Because we spent so many years ignoring or misunderstanding the nature of child abuse, especially child rape, the natural human instinct to make amends for our transgressions has morphed into something dangerous: a bloodlust for bodies. We all too often want to believe that someone who has been accused of this heinous crime has actually committed it so we can convict him and then do penance for all of the children in all of the previous generations who suffered in silence.
Look at what just happened at Penn State with the cries to tear down Paterno's statue and erase his name from every corner of the college he helped build.
And worse things have happened in our attempt to right the wrongs of the past. This week, a former coach at Lansdale Catholic was charged with having made false accusations of sexual abuse against esteemed colleagues at the school because he was unhappy about being fired. As Montgomery County DA Risa Vetri Ferman said with understated eloquence: “The current publicity, it raises awareness, and that is a wonderful thing…but the downside is that when accusations like this are made, they do so much damage. How do you undo that? How do you unring that bell?”
How indeed. As Cassio says in Othello at the moment when he has been shamed in front of his friends: “Reputation, reputation, reputation! O I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial.”
The pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction.