Missing out on Miller

” ‘It’s over,’ said Emily Swenson, 15, . . . ‘We can’t do anything about it. We just have to obey.’ ”

This quote is from an article about the recent banning of Arthur Miller’s classic play The Crucible in a Fulton, Mo, high school. The irony is that The Crucible was written precisely to inspire people to resist

I read the play in school (obviously it corrupted me something awful), but I never got a chance to see it until the movie version came out. It’s not a brilliant adaptation by critical standards, yet afterward I broke down in the theater and sobbed for five minutes. I walked home in a daze. The Crucible is essentially the story of a government witch hunt, and an examination of how so many people can be frightened into sacrificing even their friends and neighbors. And how some cannot. I cried in that theater for Giles Corey, who in The Crucible is tortured to death because he refuses to ‘name (innocent) names’. All he has to do to save himself from being crushed to death by heavy stones is tell his torturers what they want to hear. What would you do? Lying to torturers to save your life is certainly ethically justifiable. But what if that lie would be used to justify and perhaps extend the crimes of those torturers? Corey chooses, and his answer is “More weight.” He dies. The witch hunt soon ends. I still remember the despair I felt, crying for this heroic man, crying because some people have to die stupid, pointless deaths to redeem humanity, which wakes up and goes back to everyday life.

I cried because I hoped that I would have the moral courage of Corey, and because I didn’t want to ever have to find out.

Last weekend on This American Life I heard an interview with former prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, men who had no links to terrorism (according to the government’s own documents) but who were there because someone had wanted the bounty America is offering for “terrorists.” One man describes “admitting” he was a terrorist to end his interrogation (I just noticed how similar those words sound). He was released anyway. He is very lucky.

Hopefully most of us will never be tested in such extreme ways. But we are tested in other ways all the time. Will we be like the poor guy in Guantanamo, who just wanted to survive and maybe someday see his family again? Will we be like Giles Corey, willing to sacrifice his (fictional) life for a greater good? Or will we “just have to obey”? I’m sorry the kids in that Fulton school are missing a chance to ask themselves such questions.