Why All the Secrecy?
“NOTHING is so burdensome as a secret.” Or at least so claims a French proverb. Could this explain why we feel good when we know a secret but sometimes frustrated when we cannot talk about it? Yet, over the centuries many people have welcomed secrecy, joining themselves together into secret groups in pursuit of a common goal.
Among the earliest of these secret societies were the mystery cults found in Egypt, Greece, and Rome. Later some of these groups wandered from their religious background and took on political, economic, or social overtones. For example, when guilds were formed in medieval Europe, their members resorted to secrecy primarily for economic self-protection.
Secret groups in modern times have often been formed for quite honorable reasons, possibly for “social and benevolent purposes,” according to the Encyclopædia Britannica, and “to carry out charitable and educational programs.” Some fraternal organizations, youth clubs, social clubs, and other groups are also secret, or at least semisecret. Generally, these groups are innocent, their members simply finding secrecy exciting. Secret rites of initiation have strong emotional appeal and strengthen the bonds of camaraderie and unity. Members gain the feeling of belonging and a sense of purpose. Secret societies of this kind usually are no threat to nonmembers. Outsiders are none the worse off for not knowing the secrets.
When Secrecy Signals Danger
Not all secret groups are secret to the same degree. But those that have “secrets within secrets,” as the Encyclopædia Britannica expresses it, pose a particular danger. It explains that “by the use of special names, ordeals or revelations,” members of the top ranks manage to “set themselves apart,” thereby stimulating “the lower ranks to the effort necessary to reach the exalted degrees.” The danger inherent in such groups is obvious. Those in the lower echelons may be completely unaware of the real objectives of the organization, not having as yet progressed to that level of revelation. It is easy to become involved in a group whose goals and methods of achieving them are only partially recognized and, indeed, perhaps not even fully shared. But the person who has been initiated into such a group may later find it difficult to free himself; he is, as it were, bound by chains of secrecy.
Secrecy signals even greater danger, however, when a group pursues illegal or criminal goals and therefore tries to hide its very existence. Or if its existence and general aims are known, it may try to keep its membership and its short-term plans secret. This is true of highly motivated terrorist groups that periodically shock the world with their terrorist attacks.
Yes, secrecy can be dangerous, both for individuals and for society as a whole. Think of the secret teenage gangs that violently prey upon innocent victims, criminal associations like the secretive Mafia, white supremacy groups like the Ku Klux Klan,* not to mention the many terrorist groups around the world that continue to thwart efforts to achieve world peace and security.
What Are They up to Now?
During the 1950’s, as a by-product of the Cold War, secret groups were organized in several Western European countries to serve as the basis for resistance movements should the Soviets ever try to conquer Western Europe. According to the German newsmagazine Focus, for example, “79 secret weapon depots” were set up in Austria during this period. Not all European countries were even aware of these groups. A newsmagazine realistically reported in the early 1990’s: “Still unknown are how many of these organizations are alive today and what they may have been up to lately.”
Yes, indeed. Who can really know how many secret groups may at this very moment be posing a threat greater than any of us might imagine?
This U.S. group kept some of the religious elements of earlier secret societies by using a burning cross as its symbol. In the past, it carried on nighttime raids, its members being dressed in robes and white sheets and venting their rage against blacks, Catholics, Jews, foreigners, and organized labor.