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Excerpt from A Language Older Than Words

Doctors at Auschwitz (p. 88)

From chapter "Claims to Virtue"

Rational discussion presupposes rational motivations, yet claims to virtue are always attempts to place rational masks over nonrational urges. This means that to focus on the claims without broadening the debate so that it includes a consideration of the underlying urges is to be irrational and ultimately to fall into the same pattern of destructiveness. Another way to say this is that while the claims themselves possess the veneer of rationality the process is not rational, and cannot be resolved by rational discussion. It can seem rational, but only within a severely distorted, nonrational framework—and then only so long as one doesn’t question the framework itself.

Take the doctors at Auschwitz. As has been made clear by Lifton, the physicians working there would not have been effective cogs in the Nazi machine without first being quite certain they acted in the best interests of the world, and even in some cases of the Jews themselves. Some exhibited genuine concern for the well-being of the Jews, but only within the strict confines of the Auschwitz reality. In other words, while refusing to question the justice, sanity, or humanity of working prisoners to death or gassing them in assembly-line fashion, and refusing to question the abysmal conditions under which prisoners were housed, they often did what little was left to alleviate suffering.

One of the most common ways they did this was by preventing outbreaks of typhus, tuberculosis, and other communicable diseases by injecting patients with phenol. Children, adults who had long been on the medical block, and others who were ill or had the potential to become ill were selected for injection. The physician or technician filled the syringe from the phenol bottle and thrust the needle into the heart of the patient, emptying the contents of the syringe. Most patients fell dead almost immediately, although some lived for seconds or even minutes. Just like the Forest Service and timber companies, these physicians were preempting outbreaks by killing their patients. This could be rationalized by saying that dead and burned prisoners were no longer infectious risks to the living. Rationale aside, it was murder.

Paradoxically, the way out from these destructive frames of mind is to step in—experience, not thought or rationalization is the only cure-all. Instead of hiding behind notions of racial purity or pretending to prevent epidemics, notice that at this moment I am lifting this boy’s arm. He is six. His skin is pale. His eyes lock on mine: he is terrified. I am inserting the needle between his fourth and fifth ribs. It slides in easily He winces, stifles a sob. I depress the plunger. He stiffens, and before he can fall off the stool my attendant carries him to the back door. The attendant returns, and ushers a woman through the front door. She takes her place on the stool. I begin to lift her left arm. Her eyes, too, lock on mine. I realize, in that instant, that I am the last thing she will ever see.

Trust experience. Descartes’ inversion of what is to be believed makes no sense to me, not to any of my senses. Thought divorced from experience is nonsense. I know from my own childhood this divorce can be essential to survival, but paradoxically, it is this same divorce on the part of perpetrators that gives rise to these awful claims to virtue.