February 5, 2014

West Memphis Three and the Satanic Panic

satanic pizza
satanic pizza (Photo credit: romana klee)
A couple weeks ago, I caught CNN's 2011 documentary on the West Memphis Three, "Presumed Guilty: Murder in West Memphis" (here is how CNN described it when it aired). On the off-chance that any of you are unfamiliar with the case, it involves a triple-murder of three 8 year-old boys in 1993 for which three teenagers were convicted in spite of what was questionable evidence. What makes the case relevant here is that it occurred during the "Satanic panic" that swept through the U.S., and it appears that Christian hysteria over Satanic cults was a contributing factor in how the case was investigated and prosecuted. The three would serve 18 years in prison before being released through an Alford plea prompted by new DNA evidence and a ruling from the Arkansas Supreme Court.

Having read a bit about the case several years ago and watched Paradise Lost - The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills again within the last 2-3 years, I was familiar with almost everything in the CNN documentary. Paradise Lost went into far greater detail; however, it was interesting to see the more recent prison interviews with Damien Echols before his release. I don't believe I had previously seen all of the clips they included.

My Interest in the Case

I have long been fascinated with the case of the West Memphis Three for at least three reasons. First, it occurred during the "Satanic panic" in the U.S., a relatively modern witch hunt that was one of my first exposures to the mass hysteria to which Christian extremism can lead. These were unsettling times for those of us who were metal and/or horror fans, and I remain fascinated with how quickly this particular hysteria escalated and the sort of harm it inflicted on communities across our country. Some atheists like to study the Inquisition or the Salem witch trials, but I've always been more interested in the more modern hysteria around Satanic ritual abuse and the fears of many Christians that most teenage metal fans were dangerous Satanists.

Second, I can identify with the teenagers who were convicted in this case. Just a few years before the murders, I was a high school student who listened to metal, loved horror flicks, got into a fair amount of trouble, and did not look all that different from the pictures taken of them at the time. In fact, if you compared photographs of me and a couple of my friends at the time with those of the West Memphis teens, you'd almost certainly conclude that we looked far more sinister. All indications in the case suggested that the three were being targeted primarily because they were poor, nonconformist, and troubled. I was not as poor as they were, but I was certainly nonconformist and troubled, and I had some of the same interests. The story resonated with me from the beginning.

Finally, the case certainly looked like a miscarriage of justice, and I generally find myself drawn to examples of injustice where the flaws of the system are exposed. As important as the ideal of equal treatment under the law is to a healthy democracy, far too many examples have surfaced over the years showing just how far we are from this ideal. To see these teens convicted on the basis of no direct evidence was appalling, particularly when Echols ended up on death row. It certainly looked like scapegoating vulnerable individuals to ease the pain of a community.

Relevance to Skepticism and Secularism

Any relevance the case might have to atheism is probably limited to the possibility that many atheists are interested in religious hysteria and examples of religiously-motivated misdeeds. I think a stronger argument can be made that the case is relevant to skeptics and secularists.

The relevance to skepticism should be fairly obvious in that skepticism and critical thinking are essential in preventing this sort of hysteria from taking hold. It remains a mystery why a self-proclaimed expert on Satanic cults and Satanic ritual murder was permitted to testify at the trial when the FBI had already concluded that there was no evidence of Satanic cults committing ritual murder as so many Christians feared. The claims had already been debunked, and yet, they were still permitted to come in. A dose of skepticism could have been quite helpful here.

What about secularism? I think that this case and the circumstances surrounding it serve as a potent reminder of why it is so important to maintain a secular government (i.e., a government that remains neutral on matters of religion). It is natural that small town officials, most of whom will have grown up in the area, are going to reflect the predominant values of the community. But when we are talking about government officials, particularly public safety officials, it is imperative that they remain neutral on matters of religion. The police and prosecutor's office should not have allowed themselves to be sucked up in the Satanic panic of the times.

Ancient History?

Some may object that the 1990s were a long time ago and that Christian hysteria over Satanism is ancient history. There is no way that people today are going around stoking fears of "devil worshipers," right? While I must reluctantly acknowledge that the 1990s were quite awhile ago (i.e., I am getting old), I am not so sure that we've seen the end of this sort of hysteria.

Did you happen to see Hemant Mehta's (Friendly Atheist) post about Lady Theresa Thombs, a candidate for the Texas Board of Education claiming, "We know we didn't come from monkeys" a few days ago? The part that got my attention was the screen capture from one of her recent tweets. It read:
We have Devil worshipers who cannot wait to vote. Like I said to the liberal grannie who thinks the Devil is right. Christians will win.
If you do not share Thombs' political views, you must worship "the Devil." I would guess the same is likely to be true of anyone who does not share her religious beliefs. That is dangerous thinking. And this woman is running for the state board of education.

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