Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times reported on an interesting point in the opinion section earlier this month. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/13/opinion/13kristof.html?_r=1&oref=slogin
He’s talking about a paper entitled “Poverty and Witchcraft” by Edward Miguel at UofC Berkley which you can read at http://elsa.berkeley.edu/~emiguel/miguel_witch.pdf
In it, he notes that periods of drought or flood are linked to witch killings in developing areas, particularly of older women, but not murders of other sorts.
In short, when the weather gets weird, people look for someone to blame and lo, the witch gets killed and if there’s always a witch in the neighborhood, even if there isn’t.
Mr. Kristof connects this to research by Emily Oster at the University of Chicago who points out that colder weather correlated with witch hunts in Europe. You can check that out at http://home.uchicago.edu/~eoster/witchec.pdf
Now it’s true that witch burnings are, at present, not a concern for most of America, but they occur all over the world. In India police are hoping that displaying the severed head of a an accused witch killed by an angry mob will help to prevent this sort of thing from happening in the future. Hundreds of witch killings take place there every year and many go unreported.
In Kinshasa, a city in Congo in Africa, there is a rash of people being accused of stealing penises right off folks. The police are arresting the accused mostly to prevent them from being attacked by their accusers, or from having the accusers get a mob together.
Witchcraft in India and Africa have alot more in common with each other than Witchcraft either have with Wicca or modern Western witchcraft. I don’t think the local herbalist has much to be worried about, but the witch hunt isn’t just about witches. It’s about scapegoats. In the United States, lynchings of blacks increased when farm values went down and all over the world economic crisis is a recipe for Civil War. It must be someone’s fault, it’s not ours/mine. We’d better kill them.