We live in heinous times. Times when it’s nearly impossible to be shocked by the sheer horror to which humans subject each other. (Where do you go after Tutsis and Hutus?) And then, one fine Thursday in the dawn of the Obama Disappointment Months, you pick up The New York Times and slurp your granola over a front page story about Dr. Aribert Heim—aka Uncle Tarek , aka Dr. Death—the last of the Death Camp Doctor-Monsters, Number One on the Simon Weisenthal Most Wanted List.
And just like that—pass the honey, Doodlebug!—you’re plunged from the quotidian guts-first into the Holocaust. Here comes the other popular N-word (“Nazi”), then “Dr. Death,” then the heavy ammo: “operations without anesthesia,” “removing organs from healthy inmates,” ”injecting gasoline into hearts.” And—here’s a new twist : decapitating inmates who had good teeth, cooking their heads in the crematorium until the flesh stripped off, and giving them to his co-workers for desk decorations! (Because, if you’re saving the Master Race at Buchenwald, what’s Christmas without a cooked Jew-head in your stocking?) The sickness of that, the mundane arm—chewing disgust at knowing it happened—what? Eighty years ago—is only amplified by the fact, newly gleaned, that the perpetrator of such medical atrocities has been tracked down. (NOTE: the word “atrocities,” in our own atrocious age, has about as much impact as the word “edge” in Hollywood pitch meetings. Here’s the deal! We make the zombie coprophiliac edgy, but we make him likeable!) That Heim has been found dead, for seven years, in Egypt, does not lessen the impact of discovering that he’d been walking around, a free man, careering from Spa Gynecologist at Baden-Baden to serious Muslim in Cairo.
Having just spent three years as full-on Mengeloid for a book on another at-large-until-death marquee genocider—this one the Angel of Death, Josef Mengele—it was with mixed gratification and horror that I read the story of Doctor Heim. Gratification because it backed up my gut that, on some level, this story remains the story, the story with tendrils in Abu Gharib and Iraq and Rush Limbaugh’s liver and Rick Warren’s homophobia and McCain’s racist campaign ads and the lady who made octuplets so she could finagle a decent fee from People. Horror because—well, for the obvious reasons… and one extra one: my book comes out in a couple of weeks, and now, no matter what I say on the subject, saying anything sounds like I’m coat-tailing on a Nazi in the News to work some PR bottom-feeding. What would Thomas Mann do? (The eternal question.)
Oddly, however, while considering the issues raised by the discovery of this latest sado-death camp freak practitioner, my thoughts turned to Steven Adler, ex Guns and Roses drummer turned star of Sober House. Steven, lovable as the day is long, was recently captured executing the most perfect lurch I’ve ever seen on cable television. Helped, apparently, by liberal doses of tin foil and Mexican tar, Steven’s onscreen toxic shuffle left one wondering how future residents could top it. Adler met and raised the bar for narco-lurching set by former lurch-meister Jeff Conaway, who lapsed into a kind of Granpappy Amos Walter Brennan crouch-scamper when his back pain hit and he needed some pain killers. He, too, I found massively sympathetic, and could relate to a little too much. (The only difference, in all honesty, is that I was never even famous enough to relapse in front of a reality TV crew. But that’s the kind of shame I’ll just have to live with.)
What links the charismatically damaged Adler and the Waffen-SS sawbones is their shared love of human experimenting. Like many addicts, myself included, upon occasion, the former Axl Rose band-mate seems to have rendered himself a one-man science project. And watching him stagger and twitch, blinking like a light bulb in an electric storm, I wondered what the professional chemical-administrators, the Third Reich faux-medicos who had to force the helpless to test their toxins, would make up of American celebrities who not only dosed themselves, but did so voluntarily, on camera, for the entertainment of untold thousands of cable subscribers throughout Post-Economy America.
I have a theory—crackpot or not—that American viewers are going to need deeper and deeper strains of TV mutants to satisfy their craving for People Who Are Worse Off Than They Are. Already, when not blasting shows hosted by my dream date, Rachel Maddow, or fave news-chewers Oberman and Matthews, MS/NBC offers near blanket Inmate TV, offering fine television from the bowels of our nation’s hardest hard-core penal institutions. VH-1, of course, graces the nation with the aforementioned Sober House. But eventually, America is going to want more. As the airborne toxic event that is our fiscal collapse sinks the hearts of even the most chipper TV viewers, how long till the private entertainments of state-sanctioned maniacs like Mengele and Hein are revived for the entertainment of citizens so stunned by their own crumbling reality that reality TV is the only succor left to pull them through?
Assuming the electricity’s still on, and somebody can cover the cable bill, don’t be surprised when Death Camp Divas shows up in a splash ad on the side of a city bus, or live human experiments from Plum Island Bio-Research Center take the place of by-then bland-seeming offerings like Tool Academy and For The Love of Money. Dulled by disappointment and dread, what’s left, for Homeland America, but the past, all over again, this time on video, live from Dauchau, Nebraska?
Call me crazy. But how many people went to bed on February 3 expecting to wake up February 4 and read about boiled skulls on the front page of the New York Times? And how many, human nature being what it is, felt happily distracted, relieved not to be reading about economic torment, planet-wide panic, and their own disappearing future.
Thank you, Dr. Death.