Reason prevails - belatedly. Slowly but effectively, American institutions are repudiating the follies of a period in which echoes of both the Salem witchcraft trials and McCarthyism were heard in the land.
Last week, two headline cases where irrationality ran roughshod over justice and fact - one in court, one in the United States Congress - were finally redressed.
The first was the freeing of George Franklin, a San Francisco-area fireman. Franklin had been imprisoned for seven years after a murder conviction based on a suspect "therapy" technique alleged to recreate "repressed memories." His 1990 conviction was overturned in federal court. Then a threatened retrial was called off after the central evidence in the case was discredited on two counts: 1) The "repressed memory" of Franklin's daughter wrongly placed him at the site of one murder when 20-year-old minutes of his fireman's union showed him to be elsewhere. 2) A sister testified that the daughter had lied when she denied that she had been hypnotized in the process of discovering this "memory."
The second case was the exoneration of Dr. David Baltimore and his research associate, Dr. Thereza Imanishi-Kari, victims of a McCarthyist inquisition at the hands of an arrogant congressional committee chairman and his staffers.
One by one cases involving the use of manipulative mental techniques that influence children to "recall" bizarre satanic ritual abuse, or adults to "recover" memories of abuse allegedly repressed since childhood, have been overturned or have ended in acquittal. Higher courts have rightly found suggestive techniques involving hypnosis, "visualization," and "imagining" early life incidents to be unreliable and inadmissable as evidence on which to convict.
In the quite-different matter of accusations that Dr. Imanishi-Kari (backed by Dr. Baltimore) fabricated lab results, it was not a higher court but careful scientific review that exonerated the Nobel biologist and his associate. A three-member panel of scientists appointed by the Health and Human Services Department exonerated Dr. Imanishi-Kari's work, confirming earlier reviews by Tufts, MIT, and the National Institutes of Health.
A common thread links these disparate cases. Both prosecutors and congressional staffers, in their zeal, relied on highly dubious pseudo-scientific techniques and suspect personal emotions in pursuit of conviction - the first in court, the second in the court of public opinion. That was the same hubris that characterized the earlier sensationalized cases known as the McMartin pre-school and Fells Acres Day School child abuse cases.
The 1983-90 McMartin pre-school case in California was built on strange tales of child abuse apparently induced in children's thinking by ambitious and poorly trained investigators - tales as bizarre as those thrown at the women of Salem. That longest and then most-costly trial in California history ended in jury acquittal. Next came the similar Fells Acre case in Massachusetts. The mother and daughter who ran that day-care center were freed after eight years in prison when a superior court judge declared their conviction null and void, but their son/brother remains in jail.
It's easy to look back on the McCarthy and Salem witchcraft eras as quaint periods of hysteria in the nation's past. But now, as then, there are two pernicious aspects of such aberrations that must be corrected. First, individual suffering. Reputations and lives are gravely injured. Second, public gullibility. Too many Americans have been willing to accept pseudo-psychological techniques or to cheer on zealous but scientifically illiterate politicians attacking scientists to grab headlines.
We shake our heads that the citizens of Salem and Judge Sewall could believe in witchery. But here in our midst are earnest therapists incredibly asserting that "visualization" can confirm the most outrageously improbable atrocities. As a review in Scientific American magazine noted: "Many therapists have reported on patients who have clearly recalled savage acts carried out by satanic cults: rapes, murders, cannibalization ... and related atrocities.... Investigations by the Federal Bureau of Investigation of more than 300 cases have failed to turn up any proof."
Americans are emerging from this new period of manipulation. We continue to congratulate ourselves on living in an advanced period of the Age of Reason. Surely instant communications, the spread of higher education, and the built-in safeguard of appeals bodies will increasingly prevent miscarriages of justice such as these?
But hold the complacency. While the McMartin case was grinding on, the nation's first lady was consulting an astrologer. As the Dr. Baltimore matter stewed, the well-educated current first lady consulted a "visualizer." Talk shows push the occult and pop psychology.
Americans are sensible. And good sense has prevailed in these highly visible cases. The moral now, as in the past, is simple: Remain vigilant. Don't be swayed by emotional manipulators.