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Should the term "witch hunt" only be used when dealing with a problem that does not exist, as in witchcraft, or does the term also apply when a problem does exist, but those dealing with it are ignoring due process?

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The definition for witch-hunt, as given by the OED, is:

a. A single-minded and uncompromising campaign against a group of people with unacceptable views or behaviour, spec. communists; esp. one regarded as unfair or malicious persecution.

b. A campaign against an individual.

It has taken on this less literal meaning since the 1930s. The term is used to mean that a group of people is being persecuted for their beliefs unfairly. This can be used when there is a potential problem or not, but the group of "witches" is not being treated fairly. I think it is safe to say that the term applies to both of your cases: when there is no problem (like the Salem Witch Trials) and when due process is ignored (like communists in the US).

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    To be more explicit, what makes it a "witch hunt" has nothing to do with whether or not its a real problem, but has everything to do with whether or not due process is ignored -- if due process is ignored in a panic to accuse someone, anyone, it's a witch hunt. – Jeremy Sep 5 '11 at 4:15
  • @Jeremy: Exactly what I was trying to say. Only you put it much better. – simchona Sep 5 '11 at 4:56
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A "witch hunt" implies that someone is blamed for something that is not their fault. The problem may be real. But the source of the problem is not clear so a "scape goat" is found to take the blame.

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Witch hunt may refer to a situation where a person is targeted by a group with escalating intensity the end result threatens the person's integrity and survival.

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    You seem to have a valid answer; however, you should your source of information. This simply means to provide a link (i.e. merriam-webster.com). – Ben Oct 17 '15 at 3:32

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