Coronavirus witch-hunt sets Europe ablaze

Scapegoats: Anti-5G activists argue radiation from phone masts spreads the coronavirus.

Is witch-burning back? Fear of the coronavirus has stoked the flames of the anti-5G movement, drawing parallels with the mass hysteria and witch-hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries.

An invisible enemy stalks Europe, sickness sweeps the land. Dark diabolical forces are at work and angry mobs with burning torches are on the streets.

1613 or 2020?

Over the last few weeks, arsonists have burned down dozens of 5G towers across Europe, blaming the telecom equipment for spreading the coronavirus. It’s a bogus conspiracy theory, but one stirred up by celebrities on social media – and a climate of fear and anxiety about a disease that has infected five million people worldwide.

The anti-5G attacks have been especially bad in the Netherlands, where 22 masts have been torched in the last few weeks. But 400 years ago, they weren’t burning phone towers. They were burning people.

In 1613, in the Dutch town of Roermond, a network of witches was supposedly uncovered. Under interrogation and torture by the authorities, these women confessed to using black magic to murder 600 newborn babies, 400 elderly people, and 6,000 livestock.

Relieved to have discovered the cause of so much death, the town gathered to watch 40 witches burn alive. And to make sure they died slowly, the officials chose slow-burning green wood to prolong their agony.

Thankfully, the last person to be executed for witchcraft in Europe was an unfortunate Swiss woman, beheaded in 1782. But some think the 5G arson attacks have a lot in common with the early modern craze for witch-burning.

Like now, disease and climate change were causing hardship and death across the continent. Angry, starving people wanted someone to blame. Governments feared rebellion and, so, redirected the people’s rage on to scapegoats.

Modern-day leaders are quick to blame China for the coronavirus, with 5G witch-hunters joining the dots between Chinese-made technology and Covid-19. Chinese communities have also been targeted by this anti-China hysteria.

The most famous witch-hunt in history took place in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692 and inspired Arthur Miller’s classic play, The Crucible. Miller shows how witch-hunts are a dark side of human nature that never went away.

In 1956, the playwright himself was accused of communism at the height of the McCarthy witch-hunt. His play examines how witchcraft accusations set neighbours against each other, whilst governments avoid the blame. With our neighbours making sure we don’t break social distancing rules, maybe we all need to be careful not to end up being burnt at the stake?

So is witch-burning back?

Dark arts

Of course not, say some. There’s a world of difference between burning people and burning phone masts. In the early modern period, tens of thousands of innocent people were killed by their own governments. Those burning 5G towers today are fanatics on the fringes of society, who are not supported by governments or the wider public.

Yes, others say, and it’s very dangerous. History warns us that widespread fear can turn into mass hysteria. When people don’t trust evidence and begin believing in rumours, those in control of the information can direct people’s anger against innocent scapegoats. Like a virus or a wildfire, these violent outbursts can grow rapidly out of control.

You Decide

  1. Do you believe in magic?
  2. Is technology the new witchcraft?

Activities

  1. Design your own magical communication system, with diagrams of how it works.
  2. You are a lawyer defending the Salem witches. Use the expert links to write a one-page defence.

Some People Say...

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Arthur C Clarke (1917–2008), science-fiction writer

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It wasn’t until 1951 that laws against witchcraft were finally repealed in the UK, meaning that no one today can be officially accused of being a witch. However, the term “witch-hunt” has entered modern political language to describe any false accusation. The internet and social media have become fertile spaces for fake news, disinformation, and rumour to spread rapidly – and like 17th-Century witch-hunts, they escalate into accusations and public shaming with real consequences for real people.
What do we not know?
The big question is whether modern society is as superstitious or irrational as those witch-hunters in 1613 Roermond, or 1692 Salem. Arthur Miller suggested that very little has changed and there is something fundamental about human psychology and society that leads to these violent accusations and outbursts. Others would say we are not like our witch-burning ancestors and it is only the extreme fringes of society that believe these kinds of things.

Word Watch

Burning torches
Destroying something completely by burning has always been deeply symbolic and ritualistic, as it reduces something to nothing. Bonfires on Guy Fawkes’ night are rooted in a tradition of burning Catholic heretics (those who didn’t believe in the Church’s official teaching); the Nazis burned massive piles of banned books, and protests often involve the symbolic burning of your enemy’s flag.
5G towers
Fifth-generation telecommunication technology is designed to improve internet connections, but opponents argue the radiation is harmful to health. The technology is built in China and many are also worried about the country’s influence over telecommunications.
Celebrities
Rapper Wiz Khalifa, singer Keri Hilson, and actor Woody Harrelson have all used their huge following on social media to spread the 5G conspiracy theory.
Europe
Modern witch-hunts continue to kill people around the world, especially in India and sub-Saharan Africa.
Early modern
Early modern European history is usually seen as the early 16th Century, through the Age of Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries, until the start of the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th Century.
Climate change
Between the 16th and 19th centuries, the northern hemisphere experienced the Little Ice Age. Colder temperatures in Europe caused widespread famine.
Scapegoats
The term for blaming an innocent victim comes from the Bible and a ritual of sacrificing a goat to rid the community of sin.
Salem
Between 1692 and 1693, more than 200 people in the puritanical British colony of Massachusetts were accused of witchcraft, and 19 people were sentenced to death.
Arthur Miller
The US playwright wrote The Crucible in 1953 as a political commentary on the fear and paranoia of 20th-Century politics.
McCarthy
In the 1940s and 1950s, Senator Joseph McCarthy (1908-1957) led a campaign against accused communists and “communist sympathisers”, who were considered guilty of un-American activities and loyalty to Soviet Russia.

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