Thursday, October 18, 2012

Legislating Magick is a Bad Idea

The current debate going on in Zimbabwe over the so-called "Witchcraft and Suppression Act" is a perfect example of how trying to legislate magical or other spiritual practices is an incredibly bad idea. The government now finds itself working to preserve cultural practices such as traditional healing while at the same time prohibiting the use of "supernatural powers" for purposes that are more nefarious. But by the very nature of magick it can be difficult to determine the intent of a practitioner. If African spells are anything like their Western counterparts, many of the same components are used in both helpful and harmful operations. In the Western system Saturn, for example, rules cursing - but you could invoke Saturn to both cast a curse and protect yourself from one and the two ritual forms would be almost identical. Last week Justice and Legal Affairs Minister Patrick Chinamasa tried to explain the fine distinction that the government is trying to make in applying the current law.

“Clearly if you point out that someone was a witch, it is defamatory.
“But if you can prove it that someone was found with a human hand that is enough proof,” he said.
“If you can open a grave and eat its contents, that’s enough proof.”
Minister Chinamasa said witchcraft allegations have in the past divided families.
Hardworking and wealthier families, he said, have usually been the target of such allegations.
The usual allegations, he said, were that these wealthier families were using poor families to work in their fields at night.
“If you can prove that, then it is witchcraft.
“But witchcraft is not the wisdom we want to protect.
“That power to make supernatural powers to cause harm to others is not what we want to protect under traditional medical knowledge,” he said.

It seems to me that a much simpler solution to this problem is to criminalize harmful actions that may or may not be performed for magical reasons. If, for example, you kill someone in order to obtain their hand for casting a spell, you're carrying around with you evidence of a murder. I'm sure that similar laws regarding the treatment of dead bodies are also already in place. Instead of trying to define what is or is not witchcraft in some legal sense, Zimbabwe's government should just enforce those existing laws and maintain the policy that criminalizes witchcraft accusations. It's much more reasonable to set up the legal system so that if you suspect your neighbor of murder you should just file a police report and let the professionals handle the investigation. Whether or not the person in question is guilty, pretty much the worst thing you can do is show up at their house with an angry mob.

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