Witches, witch-hunters and the Blood Libel

The UK government may soon face a terrible clash of Silly New Laws: not only has it vowed to protect witches from discrimination, it has also vowed to clamp down on witches. The Wiccans are apparently following in the footsteps of their historical predecessors in seeking to slaughter children, although gingerbread houses appear not to be involved this time round.

This clash should be fairly easy to resolve in reality: we’ll come to some kind of compromise. The government will issue empty statements and impose scary new laws as part of its War On Baby Eating, which will make a large proportion of the Wiccan community believe that we fear them and want to burn them at the stake. However, to make sure they don’t lose the Wiccan vote, the government will also issue empty statements that most witches are perfectly OK, and impose scary new laws that make it illegal for anyone to suggest that witches eat babies. Nobody will be prosecuted under any of them, but at least satirists won’t be left short of material.

However, we should be worried about the Metropolitan Police’s clampdown on witchcraft for reasons that go well beyond lame analogies with the War on Terror. The story, according to the Met, is that young boys are being smuggled into the UK from Africa in order to be slaughtered as part of the spell-performing ritual at some of London’s black (as in African, rather than Satanic) churches. I think we can probably agree that this would be pretty awful, if it were happening.

Even the police seem to think that this point is questionable: they say the claims are only allegations (although they also say there are “countless examples” of such allegations, and that witnesses have refused to elaborate on what’s going on because they’d be “dead meat” if they did). The only things the report actually supplies evidence for are dodgy “exorcisms”, where children believed to be possessed by demons are beaten up by holy men. We can agree this is bloody stupid behaviour, but it’s more or less the opposite of sacrificing kids to do spells, it’s hardly unique to African culture, and it wouldn’t have grabbed many headlines on its own.

The slaughter story is troublesome, though. I’m sure you won’t have too much trouble thinking of immigrant groups who’ve been accused in the past of slaughtering children as part of their weird religious ceremonies, generally on the basis of testimony made up by anonymous mobs and/or mentally unbalanced loons. I’m also fairly sure you won’t have too much trouble thinking of a particular race of people who’ve historically been demonised as backward bloodthirsty pagans who wear bones through their noses and slaughter each other for kicks, generally so that Westerners could morally justify selling them into slavery and stealing their land.

It also has more recent historical echoes: during the early-to-mid 1980s, child protection experts were absolutely convinced that the country was rife with devil-worshipping groups who tortured, raped and killed children as part of their religious ceremonies. At first, the experts said that the claims were only allegations (although they also said there were countless examples of such exaggerations, and that witnesses only refused to elaborate because they’d be dead meat if they did). Indeed, they never actually managed to provide enough evidence to land anyone a conviction for actual satanic acts in the UK – but plenty of children were taken into care, and plenty of parents were demonised as freaks and monsters as a result.

So what do you get when you cross a bunch of well-meaning child protection officials worried that there’s a Terrible Crisis and Something Must Be Done (armed with an armful of stereotypes about foreigners, Africans and Satanic abusers), a bunch of disturbed kids, a bunch of parents who are here illegally, don’t speak English well and are terrified of the authorities, and a bunch of front-line policemen famed neither for their tolerance of kiddie-fiddlers nor their love of our African brethren?

I don’t know either, but I’m worried that the outcome will be no joke.

  1. dearieme said:

    Who will be the first government minister to say that she has no objection to witchcraft as such?

  2. Tonight’s Evening Standard sandwich board:

    Children in voodoo killings in Hackney churches

  3. Andrew said:

    They just need to squeeze in house prices and cancer for that to be the perfect Sub-Standard headline…

  4. Jamie K said:

    Cancer children in voodoo killings lower house prices in Hackney…

  5. Phil said:

    The African ‘witches’ aren’t actually Wiccans, y’know. But never mind.

    From that BBC page:
    Independent adviser to the Met John Azah said that since the Climbie case and the ritualistic murder of a black child known as “Adam”, there were concerns the police were only touching the “tip of the iceberg”.

    From the LRB (on the ‘Adam’ case):
    Commander Baker remarked that the case brings together all the worst nightmares of the British public. Indeed, it is a farrago of contemporary myths about witchcraft, Africans, asylum seekers and paedophiles. ‘I think we must maintain that we are not judging the culture,’ Baker told Sky News as he flew to Nigeria. ‘We are investigating a murder.’ In fact, the police are busily reinforcing dangerous delusions.

    The tip of the iceberg, indeed.

  6. Fantastic, John. I didn’t think you could possibly write such a long and thoughtful post.

    Without swearing 27 times.

  7. Inkling said:

    Perhaps I’m a little slow on the uptake, but I’m not exactly sure what the problem is here. Ritualistic battery and murder, regardless of what race or religious persuasion is involved, are wrong, right? And false accusation and imprisonment are also wrong. I think this is something we can all, left or right, agree on. Or am I missing something?

  8. dearieme said:

    The Protocols of the Elders of Zaire?

  9. John B said:

    Inlking – yes, the problem is when people ignore (either) one because they’re single-mindedly worried about the other.

    Dearieme – very cute. Wish I’d thought of it for a title…

  10. “The UK government may soon face a terrible clash of Silly New Laws: not only has it vowed to protect witches from discrimination, it has also vowed to clamp down on witches.”

    I’m reminded of the episode of Star Trek where Spock ties the computer up in logic. I suppose it’s too much to hope that the silly sods running the country will disappear up their own arseholes.

  11. Katie said:

    I thought Jarndyce was joking until I caught sight of an evening standard board in waterloo this morning…jeeezzzz…

  12. Edwin Greenwood said:

    You seem to have made your mind up, John B, that child sacrifice isn’t happening, that it’s all a Daily Mail-style panic. Fair enough, and we are all aware of the Orkneys child abuse farrago and the dangers of emotive issues getting out of hand.

    But what if it all turns out to be true, that violent exorcism, vodou and human sacrifice are rife among London’s huge African community? What will you be saying then? Perhaps that we should not be drawing attention to the matter “for fear of inciting racial hatred”?

    People who do this sort of thing deserve all the hatred they can get, and stuff the cultural relativists who tell us that it’s perfectly valid in their “culture” and that “we” did the same in mediaeval times!

  13. Edwin: _stuff the cultural relativists who tell us that it’s perfectly valid in their “culture” and that “we” did the same in mediaeval times!_

    Name one who has said that.

  14. Edwin Greenwood said:

    Jarndyce: Name one who has said that.

    Well, John B for one. The thrust of his original, rather long-winded, post is that

    1. There isn’t really any child sacrifice going on — it’s all a media panic.

    2. Well, er, even it is going on, well, other people are just as bad, innit, including the native Brits.

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  16. Laura Rose said:

    I have heard these stories but in a different context, This is what I’ve heard. You’ve heard of runaways and children being kidnapped (mostly in America)that have not been found or whatever but, apparantly, the law know exactly whats going on but are too scared to say anything, these children have been used in religious rites and black magic spells in which they are cut open and the people doing the spell eat their guts as a spell to call a demon into being.
    Whether this story is true or not has nothing to do with the fact that as soon as you here spells or rites you automatically refer it to wicca and witches. I celebrate wicca myself, I make herbal remedies and I call down the Goddess and God in my spells, and I know that no witch or anyone who is into wicca would ever do anything of the sort. Wicca gets bad publicity because people are scared of what they don’t understand. Wicca is about nature and connecting to the world in a special way. Anyone doing these rites and saying they are a witch are wrong, they are not, there is a law in wicca, any energy you give out into the world will come back to you three-fold, whether it be good or bad, that is why wiccans always try to do good.
    Wicca is a religion and like other religions, like Buddism or christianity etc it will always get bad publicity no matter how much good they do.
    The government should try and respect Wicca as the religion it is and not be scared of it, that is just going to cause negative energy to everyone around the world and no one will benefit from it. An example of this is the salem witch trials – do we really want another manslaughter of innocent people? Because that’s what will happen if they carry on. They need to calm down and learn more about it then they won’t be predjudiced to something they don’t understand.

    Blessed Be


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