National Opinions

OPINION: The danger of pitting Americans against each other

Glenn Youngkin

Christine Adams is professor of history at St. Mary’s College of Maryland and author of book on “The Creation of the Official French Royal Mistress,” with Tracy Adams.

While urging Virginians to “love your neighbor,” Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin also established a phone line where parents could leave “tips and observations” if teachers bring up offensive material in the classroom - specifically, teaching about race in ways that might make students uncomfortable.

But this effort to enlist parents in an anonymous campaign against teachers is fraught with peril. For centuries secret denunciations by neighbors, friends and even family have been the tools of dictatorships, used to sow fear and enforce conformity.

The European witchcraft trials of the 16th and 17th centuries exposed the power and peril of such secret accusations. Trials for witchcraft peaked as early modern states, in collaboration with church authorities, extended and increased their power over their subjects. While difficult to estimate, most scholars agree that somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 individuals (the majority of them women) were tried for witchcraft during those years. Of those, between 40,000 and 60,000 were executed.

A number of factors fueled the effort to ferret out witches during these years. The political and psychological tensions that resulted from the Protestant Reformation and subsequent wars of religion certainly played a role. So too did demographic changes that led to increasing numbers of unmarried women, the most common victim of witchcraft accusations. Witches were a convenient scapegoat for any number of social ills.

However, legal changes connected to the spread of Roman law throughout Europe also played a role. These shifts had begun centuries earlier, when the growth of higher education in the 11th and 12th centuries led to a revival in the formal study of Roman law in newly created universities, where scholars appreciated the law’s logic and rigor. For rulers looking to grow their power, implementing this legal code provided more authority since a maxim of Roman law was that “the king’s will has the force of law.”

The adoption of Roman law also involved a shift from an accusatorial legal procedure to an inquisitorial procedure, pioneered by the Catholic Church but eventually adopted by secular authorities as well. Under the former, suspects knew what the accusations were and who was making them, and they could sue the accuser if the charges were not proved. Under an inquisitorial procedure, legal authorities brought the case and the accusers remained hidden. Secrecy was an essential element of these newly “officialized” and “rationalized” inquisitorial procedures, as was torture to obtain the confessions that would corroborate the secret accusations.


The European witchcraft cases showed the power of anonymity. Complainants did not have to take personal responsibility for their accusations of witchcraft, nor did they have to face any accused woman or her relatives. Placed in the hands of secular and Church authorities, the secret accusations provided an important tool for rulers to consolidate their power over subject populations by exploiting public fears of the deviant “other” and promising to eliminate the problem. The regions of Europe that did not adopt Roman legal practices saw fewer trials for witchcraft and no mass panics.

A similar dynamic played out during the French Revolution of 1789. Revolutionaries who sought to remake the government called for liberty, equality and fraternity, but resistance, war and counterrevolution pushed the new government to take increasingly harsh measures, eventually resulting in what is often called the Reign of Terror. As the Revolutionary government sought to contain internal dissent and to ensure the loyalty of the population, it relied increasingly on furtive denunciations to “purify” the nation and to rid it of internal enemies.

Beginning in 1793 until the executions of Maximilien Robespierre and his allies on July 28, 1794, hundreds of thousands of suspected “enemies of the nation” were arrested and about 17,000 executed by official order of the state. Indeed, the French government was grappling with the problem of civil war and local rebellions from 1793 onward at the same time that it was fighting much of Europe.

In the absence of modern police and intelligence forces, the two committees in charge of war and surveillance - the Committee of Public Safety and the Committee of General Security - relied on a network of local revolutionary committees to identify suspects. This had the effect of both mobilizing the country to support the war effort and inhibiting public opposition to government policies.

Not surprisingly, unidentified accusations of “incivisme” - insufficient patriotism - flooded the local committees, often in an effort to settle old scores among enemies. Glazier Jacques-Louis Ménétra, who lived through the Revolution, wrote movingly of the suspicion and fear that dominated in the spring of 1794: “Neighbor coldbloodedly denounced neighbor [. . .] Blood ties were forgotten.” When the regime encouraged citizens to step up with denunciations, people happily obliged - even though denunciation could lead to death.

Such trends continued in the 20th century in the modern totalitarian states that emerged between World War I and World War II. Nazi Germany’s infamous secret police, the Gestapo, relied on the anonymous denunciations of German citizens to cultivate its reputation as an omniscient, efficient and terrifying force. Later, the Soviet KGB and East Germany’s Stasi similarly relied upon secret informers.

Time and time again, authoritarian regimes exploited the tensions among their citizens to foster the public fear and mistrust of the “other,” which allowed them to maintain their power.

However, sowing social divisions by cultivating fear also posed big risks for those in power unless they adjusted. For example, the massive witch panic that could lead to charges against scores of individuals often ended as accusations spiraled out of control, sometimes targeting the wives and daughters of the elite, or even powerful men, rather than the usual poor and friendless suspects.

Eventually, the educated and increasingly skeptical ruling class shut down witch trials in most states by the early 18th century - they had become dangerous rather than useful. And yet, the damage had been done. Communities continued to blame undesirable “others” for economic and social problems.

During the French Revolution, the terror government fostered among citizens who lived in fear of denunciation and arrest eventually led to its collapse in 1794 with the execution of Robespierre and his colleagues in July. And yet, social and political divisions persisted here as well. French citizens remained deeply distrustful of each other. In the short term, democratic republicanism proved impossible to maintain, and Napoleon Bonaparte came to power 1799 promising to unify the French nation.

In the United States today, fearmongering is doing little to ease divisions in this deeply fractured nation: instead, many seem to be deliberately pitting neighbor against neighbor. The Texas abortion ban that permits citizens to sue anyone who helps a woman obtain an abortion after the six-week mark, passed before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, incentivizes citizens to spy on their neighbors. Other states have rushed to pass copycat vigilante laws.

Teacher shortages are a problem across the country, especially in states threatening to penalize classroom instructors for what they teach; the teachers who remain are constantly looking over their shoulders. Is this what we really want? It may not be but too many politicians see benefit in cultivating distrust, and even hatred to turn out voters. Rather than turning American citizens against each other, true leadership requires efforts to foster respect and tolerance. Surely, that is preferable to turning them into a creeping army of informers.

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