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For the week of July 12 through July 18, 2000

The public burning: a witch hunt history lesson

Commentary by DICK DORWORTH


The witch hunt is an American tradition beginning (on this continent) in Salem, Mass., in the 17th century. Salem provided the name and the format for all subsequent public sacrifice to the God of Fear on the Altar of Power. The one brewing in Los Alamos could not have arrived at a more propitious time for the faltering nuclear weapons industries of America.


Until recent months it had been many years since the juicy, titillating subject of espionage involving America’s nuclear weaponry was featured in the news. Lately, for reasons far more ambiguous than apparent, nuclear espionage in America is on the front pages and in the nightly news.

A nuclear scientist of Chinese ancestry at Los Alamos has been accused of stealing classified nuclear secrets by downloading them onto unsecured computers and then copying the files to computer tapes, some of which have vanished. He claims the information is readily available and not at all secret, that he took it home in order to work on it, stole nothing, sold nothing, is as American as the best WASP, and is being victimized by, among other things, racism.

He is under investigation for suspicion of passing secrets to China, though he has not been charged with espionage. He contends that he is a target of selective prosecution and that "ethnic Chinese" workers are the subject of racial profiling by federal counterintelligence investigators.

And then, two computer hard drives containing top secret classified information concerning the construction and disarming of nuclear weapons that might fall into the hands of terrorists vanished for a month while Los Alamos burned as a wildfire swept through the area. When they were found after the fire, more or less where they had last been seen, espionage became the first explanation of choice. It is not at all clear what the truth is concerning either of these "incidents."

"Suspicion" is the key word of the above two paragraphs.

At this writing, no one has been charged with espionage in either case; but there are witch hunts brewing in Los Alamos.

The witch hunt is an American tradition beginning (on this continent) in Salem, Mass., in the 17th century. Salem provided the name and the format for all subsequent public sacrifice to the God of Fear on the Altar of Power. The one brewing in Los Alamos could not have arrived at a more propitious time for the faltering nuclear weapons industries of America. After all, the Cold War froze to death years ago; the Red Menace, in the words of William Gass of Washington University in St. Louis, "has largely gone back to the comics from whence it came"; and the public is catching on that nuclear energy for both atomic bombs and light bulbs is neither clean, benign, economical or safe, nor can its wastes be safely disposed.

The citizenry is slowly but surely becoming aware that the nuclear industry has deceived the public from its inception. And American taxpayers are becoming aware that they have paid dearly and will continue to pay dearly for those deceptions of the nuclear industry and its minions in the government and military. Government prosecutors, using the dead as a domino language of the Cold War, contend that the downloaded files threaten the nuclear balance of power; and the public knows that "balance of power" is officialspeak for spending more tax money on nuclear weaponry to counter a power that does not exist.

A good witch hunt might drum up support for the cause, as reason, good judgment, sanity and statesmanship will not.

In American literature and culture the best know portrayal of the witch hunt is surely Arthur Miller’s play "The Crucible." It uses the witch trials of Salem to illuminate, among other things, the witch hunts of the late Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee of the 1950s, and the abuse of power, fear and superstition and, in truth, stupidity that drives and allows all witch hunts. It is required reading (or viewing) for anyone concerned about misuse of power and the manipulation of people and justice and truth through fear and superstition.

My own favorite work of American literature concerning the witch hunt (in America) is the extraordinary novel by Robert Coover, "The Public Burning." It is fiction very loosely and metaphorically revolving around the three days leading up to the June 1953 executions by electrocution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. It is a book written in the early 1970s that had a hard time getting itself published because, though it is fiction, in a sense every word of it is true if not exactly factual. It uses real people to speak that truth. And every word of that truth is outrageous and wonderful and as disturbing as seriously contemplating adult human beings hunting for witches.

It is also very, very funny. That some of those people in the book were still alive and very well known in the early 1970s caused publishers to quake with fear at the idea of printing "The Public Burning." But even the fearful recognized it as great literature and an American classic—a very important novel. It was the first to use the thoughts and words of real present day living characters to reveal through fiction deep truths about those characters and the historical events in which they are involved.

Among those characters are Richard Nixon, Dwight Eisenhower, the Rosenbergs, William O. Douglas, Time magazine (sarcastically referred to by author Coover as "the National Poet Laureate"), John Foster Dulles, Herbert Brownell and J. Edgar Hoover. There are cameo appearances by Betty Crocker, Joe McCarthy, Jack Benny, the Marx Brothers, Walter Winchell and Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

Two fictional characters who are more real than some of the real characters are fictional are also prominent in the book, Uncle Sam and The Phantom.

Best of all, for those of us who miss having Richard Nixon to kick around, "The Public Burning" is a reminder of the use of the witch hunt for those who wish to gain or maintain power. It is a reminder of how well Richard Nixon used the device for his own benefit at the expense of the nation. It is a reminder of what a hypocritical, treacherous, self-serving, ruthless and deluded man he was. For instance, Coover has Nixon saying, "I’m a lot like Lincoln, I guess, who was kind and compassionate on the one hand, and strong and competitive on the other."

A man capable of warping reality that much is a man capable of embracing the witch hunt to advance his own ambitions.

"The Public Burning" is a fine and hilarious rendering of the mechanics and rationale of the witch hunt. It has just been re-issued by Grove Press and it is time to read it again. After all, the Rosenbergs burned, and there are witch hunts brewing in Los Alamos.

 

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