Tolerance for intolerance

SALEM, MA — On a holiday weekend, tourists congest the streets of this history-stained waterfront town. A ferry ride or a half hour drive from Boston — or, if you’re old enough —  a tour bus called the “Silver Fox” away, the town offers an easy getaway, the smell of salt air, seafood on the waterfront, brick streets, clapboard houses that stand as monument to our beginnings the way stone cathedrals might in an older nation, and the stray literary tie of the House of the Seven Gables. Salem could likely hold its own as a day trip destination with all that alone, but what happened there in 1692 — a story so  merciless, stupid and sad that it holds the worst of human nature to scrutiny — that’s the identity that sets this town apart from other seafront spots.

It is a story that could make this town a destination like Auschwitz, like ground zero in lower Manhattan, like the Oklahoma City Memorial, where people go to confront what happens when meanness, ignorance and self-interest are ignited by paranoia to spark lethal intolerance, and a place where people speak in quiet voices, and leave feeling at least a little, at least temporarily, changed.

That’s not what it’s like though. Tourists lick ice cream cones as they wander down streets lined with businesses that include psychic readers, “museums” with the words “haunted” or “dungeon” in their names, and souvenir shop windows filled with the town emblem of a black-gowned woman wearing a pointy broad-brimmed hat, riding a broomstick across the moonlight. There is a store called “The Broom Closet.” There is a stuffed doll in a witch costume tied to a lamppost. Halloween is a big deal here. The light-hearted approach to horror is a spectacle in its own right.

Then, if you wander off the path of a town burial ground, you find yourself in a quiet corner where stone benches jutting from rock walls invite you too take a load off. And if you do, you could look down and see this:

The fate of Giles Corey is immortalized in the town’s Witch Trial Memorial, dedicated by Elie Wiesel, inspired by the Vietnam War Memorial — a place you don’t realize you are in until you are surrounded by its harsh truths.

Then it is the powerful, inescapable place it should be; you can’t leave without seeing the last words of the victims of humanity commemorated there:

And yet it invites us all to confess, to everytime we turned our eyes from what we knew was wrong, because it was the safer thing to do.

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