Connecticut should feel guilty about the present, not the past
Guilt tripping through American history has become almost as popular for vacationers as Florida. It's a vacation from current political reality.
In Connecticut, the latest guilt trip involves the executions carried out here in the 1600s by the earliest European colonists against 11 of their number accused of witchcraft. The first known witchcraft execution in North America was that of a Windsor woman who was hanged in Hartford in 1647. This was just eight years after the Connecticut colony had distinguished itself more favorably by adopting the Fundamental Orders, a constitution establishing a government and taking more small steps toward democracy.
Until recently Connecticut preferred to remember the heroic virtues of its founders — their setting out on their own, crossing the ocean, and starting up all over again from nothing. But their failings, even their witchcraft hysteria, are not really cause for the everlasting shame pursued by today's guilt tripping, which takes people and events out of the context of their time and ignores what used to be called the ascent of man, the long and bumpy journey from primitiveness to civilization.
For, of course, hundreds of years ago people saw the world in a more primitive way, without the understanding provided by modern science and communications. The fear arising from their lack of understanding, combined with the severity of their Puritan religion, made witchcraft seem a plausible explanation for the frequent calamities they suffered, and an accusation of witchcraft quickly became a convenient mechanism for intimidating or expropriating others — much as accusations of racism are exploited today.
A group called the Connecticut Witch Trial Exoneration Project has been clamoring for a formal acquittal of the victims of the witchcraft hysteria. The state's pardon law can't help because it can be applied only to the living, so maybe it could be amended. Or maybe the General Assembly could pass a resolution of apology.
But why bother? Is there anyone in the state or even the country who has heard of the old witchcraft hysteria and who doesn't know that it was all a horrible misapprehension and injustice, and who doesn't either shudder or laugh at it? Could anyone unaware of it come upon it without instantly recognizing it as such?
Meanwhile, there are many criminal convictions throughout the country about which serious doubts have arisen, and a far more relevant project, the Innocence Project, has used DNA evidence and other investigation to exonerate hundreds of wrongly convicted people, including some in Connecticut — people who are still alive and thus in infinitely more need of exoneration than the supposed witches of old. The Innocence Project estimates that as many as 10% of prisoners held in the United States are innocent.
Also unjustly, many repeat criminal offenders stalk society because the criminal-justice system fails to put them away for good no matter how much harm they keep doing.
Many wrongly accused people have been convicted on the basis of false confessions, extracted from them by intimidation and threats by police and prosecutors, just as false confessions were sweated or even beaten out of people accused of witchcraft.
That's why any formal exoneration of the victims of the witchcraft hysteria won't do much more than make people feel guilty about a wrong done long ago for which they bear no responsibility even as it distracts them from current wrongs for which everyone remains responsible.