Last night on CNN, David Gergen, a fellow for whom I have a lot of respect, said as regards future investigations/prosecutions related to torture, “We don’t need any witch-hunts.” He’s not the first to use this expression, of course. It’s probably the most common metaphor or analogy that people bring up to derogate the possible decision that the Obama administration might make to move in that direction.
What’s wrong with it as a metaphor? Most obviously, there were no witches. That’s significant. As a consequence, anyone and everyone ‘found’ to be a witch was completely innocent of the charge and all punishments (like, lighting them on fire or tying rocks to them and dropping them in the river) thus went probably a tad too far. Further, any and all means of establishing witchness (“evidence” such as two perforations anywhere in the person’s skin) were invalid…there can be no valid evidence that establishes the existence of something that doesn’t exist.
None of this applies in the case of torture designed and committed by the US over the last six years (or earlier, of course). The acts were real and the decisions were real. Valid evidences can be, and have been, isolated in these cases as in torture investigations in any other country or at any other period of time.
The use of such an inappropriate metaphor can be considered to do the opposite task of the euphemism. Where a euphemism seeks to make a bad thing look less bad (something designed with the purpose of blowing some person to bloody bits of brain and bone becomes an “anti-personnel device) a metaphor of the sort Gergen forwards seeks to make a thing look far worse than it actually is.