The lessons of Salem

By Andrew L. Urban

By a fateful coincidence Thomas Vinterberg’s latest film, The Hunt, opened in Australia (May 2, 2013) just two weeks before Vinterberg walked the red carpet at Cannes as the head of the jury for Un Certain Regard. (The Hunt was in Competition last year and its star, Mad Mikkelsen won the Best Actor Award.) The second relevance is that Australian audiences will be seeing The Hunt in the wake of news last week that Rolf Harris has been questioned by police in the UK as an extended part of the investigation into the paedophilia case against Jimmy Savile.

In case you don’t know, The Hunt is the story of Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) a kindergarten teacher in a small Danish town. Now, following his divorce, made especially painful when his wife moves away with their teenage son, Marcus (Lasse Fogelstrom), Lucas’ life is recovering, with a new girlfriend Nadja (Alexandra Rapaport), and the reforging of his relationship with Marcus. His world comes crashing down, however, when 5 year old Karla (Annika Wedderkopp) suggests to the headmistress Grethe (Susse Wold) that he has exposed himself to her. It’s a simple lie that spirals out of control and the small community suddenly finds itself in a collective state of hysteria. Long held friendships are tested as hate and mistrust spreads.

The way Vinterberg shows how this comes to pass is masterful, credible, shattering cinema. By another fateful coincidence, Broken, by British filmmaker Rufus Norris, which opens here on May 16, tells the story of how not a 5 year old but a 15 year old girl wrongly accuses a young man in her heighbourhood of sexual misconduct, with tragic consequences for many lives around her.

So not only are these films sharply relevant, they are also a reminder of the lessons we should have learnt from the 17th century witch hunts of Salem. Cinema can be more than entertainment; it can be a mirror to society.

Writing in The Australian last weekend (April 27/28, 2013), Frank Furedi picks up the topic in an article headed: “Savile inquiry shows that  sometimes, there can be smoke without fire” (Frank Furedi’s Moral Crusades in an Age of Mistrust: The Jimmy Savile Scandal is published by Palgrave Macmillan.)

He starts: “If there is any truth to the adage that there’s no smoke without fire, a lot of people targeted by the police inquiry into historic crimes associated with Jimmy Savile are going to find their reputation has been torn to shreds.

“Rolf Harris is only the latest, and arguably most famous, celebrity to be caught up in a police investigation that appears to have acquired a life of its own. It is paralleled by a campaign of fear that relies on social media to casually target its victims.

“The destructive consequences of this moral crusade was all too apparent last November, when a network of British commentators wrongly accused Alistair McAlpine of being an abuser of young boys. Rumour-mongering acquired a powerful momentum as different zealots harnessed the anxiety fuelled by press speculation to promote their own agenda. Sadly, the spirit of an inquisitorial crusade also affects the way the police have gone about their investigation.”

In the context of that investigation, Operation Yewtree, the matters are historical allegations. “It is likely the main accomplishment of Operation Yewtree will be the destruction of reputations. No system of real justice can test the merits of a retrospective allegation made about an individual act of abuse committed more than 40 years ago.

“It can be used, however, to make an example and tarnish the name of the accused. The mere act of arresting someone on such a historical allegation is sufficient to call into question the moral status of the individual.”

But even current allegations need to be treated with care – especially in an age when instant global communication puts an immense responsibility on us to avoid burning the innocent, mistaking them for ‘witches’.

Furedi quotes Joshua Rozenberg, a respected British commentator on legal issues, who argues “society will have to learn to live with accepting that just because people are arrested and accused of a crime does not mean they are guilty. Rozenberg acknowledges there is a problem, which is that “innocent people are sometimes arrested”. He argues that “it’s for the public to understand that, sometimes, there can be smoke without fire”.

And so it is in The Hunt: Lucas is the witch who comes face to face with 17th century responses to 21st century circumstances. It’s a lesson worth repeating, since we do not seem to have grasped it, even though we think we have.

For example, on May 1, 2013, Human Rights Watch published its report More Harm Than Good, saying that “Harsh public registration laws often punish youth sex offenders for life and do little to protect public safety.”

During 16 months of investigation around the US, Human Rights Watch interviewed 281 youth sex offenders, whose median age at offense was 15, across 20 states, as well as hundreds of offenders’ family members, defense attorneys, prosecutors, judges, law enforcement officials, experts on the topic, and victims of child-on-child sexual assault.

“Under the law at the time, he was looking at being put on the public registry when he turned 18. His picture, address and information on the Web…. He just couldn’t bear it.” – Julia L., mother of Nathan L., who was convicted of a sex offense at 12 and committed suicide at 17. Grand Rapids, Michigan.

“Everyone in the community knew he was on the sex offender registry, it didn’t matter to them that he was removed…. [T]he damage was already done. You can’t un-ring the bell.” – Elizabeth M., mother of Noah M., who was convicted of a sex offense at 12 and committed suicide at 17, after being removed from the registry in Michigan. Flint, Michigan.

“I’m a ghost,” said “Dominic G.,” of San Antonio, Texas, who was required to register for an offense he committed when he was 13. “I can’t put my name on a lease, I never receive mail. No one cares if I am alive. In fact, I think they would prefer me dead.”

The majority of youth sex offenders interviewed by Human Rights Watch were placed on a registry between 2007 and 2011, but since some state registration laws have been in place for nearly two decades, large numbers of people in the US who began registering as children are now well into adulthood. Their offenses can range from heinous crimes like rape, to consensual sex between children, to relatively innocuous actions like public nudity.

“Many people assume that anyone listed on the sex offender registry must be a rapist or a pedophile,” Pittman said. “But most states spread the net much more widely.”

The report documents the numerous ways in which youth sex offenders are harmed by registration, community notification, and residency restriction laws. Youth sex offenders are stigmatized and publicly humiliated, often causing them to become depressed and even suicidal. They may become targets of harassment and vigilante violence.

All of which raises the obvious question: is a sex offender more dangerous to society than a person convicted of violent act/s, such as domestic violence? Is this some kind of moral selectivity? And what about owners of military-grade weapons … ?

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