On fire, their faces strangely impassive, they kept trying to get up and walk away, only to have their neighbors push them back into the pile of burning brush, beating them with sticks, shouting witch, witch. Why were they not staked down in some fashion? It was as if they were being told: here is the forest you were always skulking off into. Here is your cover and refuge, on fire. Get back where you belong.
Watching the video — as much of it as I can stomach — I’m suddenly grateful to be living in a nation of laws with the era of lynching behind us (I hope)… and also to be living on a mountain two miles from town.
I know how vicious small-town neighbors can be. I’ve heard the jokes about vigilante action against the local gay prostitute who solicits customers by the side of the highway just outside of town. How bad would things have to get before any and all weirdos became scapegoats? According to one line of thinking, witch persecutions are tied to economic insecurity, and flare up during times of widespread scarcity. During the last depression, I’ve heard, the Klan burned crosses in the Catholic cemetery in the middle of town. It’s not just the government you have to watch out for, though clearly the worst, most horrible violence happens when some demagogue harnesses the people’s petty hatreds and jealousies: think Rwanda in 1994, or the Chinese Cultural Revolution.
A few years ago, I read a bunch of books and articles on witch beliefs among the Pueblo peoples of the southwestern U.S. What the ethnographers heard from their informants, over and over, was that trouble starts with envy. Sometimes people became witches without even realizing it, just because they let themselves be consumed with envy for their proverbial neighbor’s ass. Evidently whoever wrote the Ten Commandments was aware of this danger, too. Apart from modern consumer society, I think it’s virtually a universal sentiment. Among the Pueblo Indians, anyone who accumulated too many things too quickly might be a witch — or might provoke jealousy and thus witchcraft in others — and therefore care was taken, traditionally, not to let anyone get too rich or too poor. Witches were thought to be shape-shifters who usually took the form of coyotes, and also traveled in dust-devils, forsaking the proper roads and paths.
Perhaps the people in the video, too, crowded onto a gravel road somewhere in (I think) Tanzania, were waiting to see whether the flames would burn off everything human and reveal the monstrous nature they knew had to be lurking just beneath.