For five centuries before the Enlightenment, animals were sometimes put on trial in Europe. Pigs were the most frequent defendants, followed by rats, but even insects were not immune. Edward Payson Evans’s classic The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals, published in 1906, begins:
It is said that Bartholomew Chessenée, a distinguished French jurist of the sixteenth century (born at Issy-l’Evêque in 1480), made his reputation at the bar as counsel for some rats, which had been put on trial before the ecclesiastical court of Autun on the charge of feloniously having eaten up and wantonly destroyed the barley crop of that province.
But the prosecution of animals was rational compared with an article published on February 11 in the New York Times. At least animals are animate; and my dog had a lively sense of guilt. The American “newspaper of record,” however, apparently believes that inanimate substances have wills and even moral purposes of their own. Perhaps one day it will hold an auto-da-fe of the worst-offending substances.
The article, by Deborah Sontag, told the story of a 21-year-old woman, Alysa Ivy, who died in the small town of Hudson, Wisconsin, from using heroin. In recent years, more and more people in America, mostly young and white, have been dying in this way—most recently, the acclaimed actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. Why? According to the Times, the cunning and charm of heroin is to blame. Heroin “has wormed its way into unsuspecting communities,” wrote Sontag, adding that “statistics [for heroin-related deaths] lag behind heroin’s resurgence.” Wicked, wicked heroin! All the worse because, though bad morally, such drugs are also charming, a little like Svengali. Alysa “was seduced by the potent painkiller” OxyContin before she “moved on” to heroin. Soon she was “in the grip of something beyond her control.” How soon, of course, we are not told, though evidence suggests that the average heroin addict takes heroin intermittently rather than regularly for 18 months before becoming addicted. In other words, becoming a heroin addict is, for most, a matter of persistence and determination rather than of raw, unadulterated fate.
Alysa’s addiction, like Frankenstein’s monster, broke free of its creator and wreaked its revenge: “Her addiction . . . killed her.” Alas, unlike the monster, heroin felt no remorse afterward and did not drift away, never to be heard from again, but rather continued to “worm” its way into other unsuspecting communities. The heroin killed by means of an overdose. This reminded me of when a woman who had drunk bleach was admitted to my hospital and the admitting doctor wrote “Overdose of bleach” in the admission notes. “What is the correct dose of bleach?” I asked him.
Two and a half millennia ago, Tsze-lu asked Confucius what would be the first thing he would do if put in charge of government. He replied that it would be to rectify names. Why, asked Tsze-lu? Because, said Confucius:
If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.
If only Confucius were the editor of the New York Times.