Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Physician, Heil! Thyself

I have a number of things to say about Nicholas Bartha, the Upper East Side physician who engineered the explosion of his $6.4 million historic townhouse on Monday. First, I recognize that suicide attempts are tragic aspects of the human experience, and that we should have compassion and respect for those whose demons have brought them to the precipice. But having said that, Dr. Bartha may well take this year's Biggest Douche in the Universe Award.

I would of course prefer that no one offed themselves, but if you are hell-bent on so doing, you could at least stick to bridges, drugs, firearms, or other reasonably self-contained methods. If you must finish yourself off with gas, please elect the head-in-the-oven method, rather than the blow-up-the-entire-house method. Because when you decide to jury-rig your gas main with a special valve, leave it open for hours, and then light the thing off, your conduct tends to create a hazard to other occupants, passers-by, and the emergency personnel who come to pull you out of the rubble.

I also subscribe to the notion that owners of historic properties have a certain duty of stewardship to future generations. Yes, I understand it's your home and not a museum, so if you want to give the Landmarks Preservation Commission the finger and ignore their italianate vs. neo-grec balustrades regulations, fine. But let's defer to them on the whole house-remains-standing vs. house-disappears-in-giant-explosion issue.

As it turns out, Dr. Bartha's plans went beyond suicide; he intended to prevent the property from being sold to satisfy a $4 million judgment in favor of his ex-wife. At least, that is what he implied in a 14-page email sent to (among others) the ex-wife, Fox News Channel, and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Now, one does hear stories of men who snap after harsh and arbitrary family court rulings, and one is sometimes tempted to sympathize. A review of the Appellate Division's opinion reveals, however, that "[t]his was not a case of ordinary marital dissatisfaction." Rather, Mrs. Bartha, a Dutch Jew born under Nazi occupation, filed for divorce after her husband posted "swastika-adorned articles and notes . . . around their home," and "became enraged when she removed them."

Now, I would never imply that anyone deserves to wake up with a 20% chance of surviving the second- and third-degree burns covering 60% of his body. But if it has to happen to someone, and we could choose between a guy who maims 15 innocent people while destroying a historic residence, basically to get the last laugh on his Jewish ex-wife whom he taunted with swastikas, and someone who didn't, I know how I'd vote.

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